The democratic intelligence of the sheep


Animals have always been a source of inspiration to study our social models. Although not considered a bulwark of intelligence, this time the sheep are teaching us a lesson. Probably taken individually they don’t have who knows how surprising behaviors, but it is in groups that they give their best. Moreover, the news of the Chinese sheep that have been walking in circles without stopping for about 10 days for no apparent reason is currently making a bit of noise . So let’s try to understand something more about these animals thanks to the new evidence from recent French research.


According to the results, the collective behavior of sheep in a flock follows a principle of self-organization, with individuals continuously adapting their direction and speed so as to give rise to a “collective” movement. Specifically, the flocks of sheep operate as a sort of “collective intelligence” and elect temporary leaders who guide the group during the movements; individual sheep alternate between the role of leader and that of followers to produce a form of “collective intelligence”.

This information comes from a study by researchers from the Université Côte d’Azur, the Université de Toulouse and the CY Cergy Paris Université used physical theories to study the collective behavior of small flocks of sheep, with the main objective of studying them social hierarchies from the point of view of finite and self-organized collective movements.

Interim leader

In summary, the interactions observed between individual pack members are hierarchical. Furthermore, all animals in the herd form a network and information is distributed according to each animal’s position in the group. And it is the position in the flock that determines the leader. “If a temporal leader has knowledge relevant to the group (for example, the way out of a maze or the location of a food source), then the temporal leader will be able to effectively lead the group.” This way, all team members can benefit from this knowledge,” said Fernando Peruani, one of the study’s authors. The group then pools information to improve its ability to move accurately to a location


The herd has no definite leader , but different animals take turns in this role. What’s especially interesting is how smooth this transition is: the leader has complete control over where the herd goes, but the herd retains full control over who the leader is at any given moment.


Put simply, the animals alternate between leading the flock and following another leader, in an organic and highly fluid way, through a continuous exchange of information that develops their collective intelligence. The leader is whoever has more information at that moment and not whoever promises to have it, and his hierarchical position is never definitive, on the contrary, it is constantly kept under control.

These processes represent an example of collective intelligence that can teach us more about how self-organizing systems can share information between their individual parts, give us directions on how to recreate such systems and get some inspiration.


The article, which explains why sheep can be a trailblazer for functional democratic models, is published in the journal Nature Physics.


  • Intermittent collective motion in sheep results from alternating the role of leader and follower. (


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