Individually, California blackworms live an unremarkable life eating microorganisms in ponds and serving as tropical fish food for aquarium enthusiasts. But together, tens, hundreds, or thousands of the centimeter-long creatures can collaborate to form a “worm blob,” a shape-shifting living liquid that collectively protects its members from drying out and helps them escape threats such as excessive heat.
While other organisms form collective flocks, schools, or swarms for such purposes as mating, predation, and protection, the Lumbriculus variegatus worms are unusual in their ability to braid themselves together to accomplish tasks that unconnected individuals cannot. A new study reported by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology describes how the worms self-organize to act as entangled “active matter,” creating surprising collective behaviors whose principles have been applied to help blobs of simple robots evolve their own locomotion.
The research, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office, was reported Feb. 5 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Findings from the work could help developers of swarm robots understand how emergent behavior of entangled active matter can produce unexpected, complex, and potentially useful mechanically driven behaviors.
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