Lost, alone, and buffeted by ocean currents: this is the beginning of life for many oceanic larvae. These tiny organisms, often only 100 micrometers in diameter, must seek a suitable new habitat by searching over length scales thousands of times their own. But searching for something you can’t see while being dragged this way and that by ocean currents can’t be easy. How do these microscopic creatures make sense of the turbulent world around them and find their home?
While many today would associate a “cloak of invisibility” with Harry Potter, the idea of a magical item that renders the wearer invisible is not a new one. In Ancient Greek, Hades was gifted a cap of invisibility in order to overthrow the Titans, whereas in Japanese folklore, Momotarō loots a straw-cloak of invisibility from an ogre, a story which is strangely similar to the English fairytale Jack the Giant-Slayer. Looking to the future in Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry imagined a terrible foe known as the Klingons, a war-driven race that could appear at any moment from behind their cloaking devices – indeed, any modern military would bite your arm off to get hold of this kind of device. Clearly, invisibility is a concept that has captured minds across many cultures, genres, and eras, so it should be no wonder that scientists are working on making it a reality.
Imagine you forget to bring money for lunch, and you overhear a teacher mention that there is free pizza somewhere on the third floor of your school. If you’re alone, you might walk around the third floor, trying to detect signs of pizza – does a room smell delicious? Do you see a suspicious stack of pizza boxes by the door to the gym? Just by using your senses, you can find the pizza. However, it is likely that there are other students on the third floor who also want free food. Maybe if you follow a crowd of students all walking in the same direction and talking about whether they want a Hawaiian or pepperoni slice, they might lead you directly to the pizza!
Which of these methods will be more effective? Following environmental signals, such as the smell of cheese, or social signals, such as the people all heading in the direction of potential pizza? In “Emergent Sensing of Complex Environments by Mobile Animal Groups,” Andrew Berdahl and colleagues seek to find out how searching in groups enhances the sensing ability of animals.