We've all seen the movie set-ups. Some fresh young thing gets off a bus from nowheresville and walks breathless through the Big City. They gape at the tall buildings, the fast cars, and the strange people. Look! There's a guy with three assistants all dressed in matching uniforms! There's a woman with a mohawk! Over there a crowd of tattooed kids are gathering around bizarre street performers. It's all so new. There's no way the character would have seen that in East Tiny Town.

Whether the fresh young thing develops a singing career, finds an urban family where they really belong, or falls into a drug habit and is locked up for drunkenly committing manslaughter depends on the genre of the movie, but the early montage of Strange People is always there. Small towns are famed for their resident eccentrics, but it is cities, with their large crowded populations, that are most reknowned for having the largest population of the unique, the extreme, and the just plain crazy. A new study shows that this phenomenon might not just be the result of large cities drawing every nutball with their own style and their crazy dream. The differentiation might be caused by the large population itself.


Scientists at UCLA headed to the hills - and the walls and the alleys - in order to monitor rodent populations. Eight different species were observed, in populations of many different sizes. They recorded the alarm calls of all of these populations and noticed an interesting trend. As populations got bigger, individual calls became more and more distinct. A group of eight rats - living in a cupboard and, say, sneaking through your sheets for dropped bedtime snacks at night - would pretty much all sound the same. In a community of hundreds of prairie dogs - hunting the open plains and surviving on the blood of unwary tourists - would have a much greater variety of calls.

The researchers believe that the diversity of crowds is the result of simple necessity. It's not hard to find a mother, father, sibling, child, or mate in a group of twenty. A crowd of hundreds or thousands necessitates the development of a winnowing process. The more social the animals are, the more unique their features and voices have to be. The desire to stand out - or to ally oneself through clothes and behaviors to a small, select group - might not just be a way to hog attentions or assert superiority. It might be a natural response to the need to be able to identify oneself to friends and family as apart from the undifferentiated herd.

Via Science News.