Soaring with Eagles, Swimming with Sharks: Measuring Animal Behaviour with Hidden Markov Models


Around the world there are concerns over the impacts of land use change and the developments (such as wind farms). These concerns have led to the implementation of tracking studies to better understand movement patterns of animals. Such studies have provided a wealth of high-resolution data and opportunities to explore sophisticated statistical methods for analysis of animal behaviour.

We use accelerometer data from aerial (Verreaux’s eagle in South Africa) and marine (blacktip reef shark in Hawai’i) systems to demonstrate the use of hidden Markov models (HMMs) in providing quantitative measures of behaviour. HMMs work really well for analysing animal accelerometer data because they account for serial autocorrelation in data. They allow for inferences to be made about relative activity and behaviour when animals cannot be directly observed too, which is very important.

In addition to this, HMMs provide data-driven estimates of the underlying distributions of the acceleration metrics – and the probability of switching between states – possibly as a function of covariates. The framework that we provide in ‘Analysis of animal accelerometer data using hidden Markov models‘ can be applied to a wide range of activity data. It opens up exciting opportunities for understanding drivers of individual animal behaviour.

The following images provide an inside view into the ecosystems in which the Verreaux’s eagle and blacktip reef shark reside.

Soaring with Veraux’s Eagles

Swimming with Blacktip Reef Sharks

To find out more, read our Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘Analysis of animal accelerometer data using hidden Markov models’.

Issue 8.2

Issue 8.2 is now online!

The February issue of Methods is now online!

This issue contains four(!) Applications articles and two Open Access articles. These six papers are freely available to everyone – no subscription required.

 Earth Mover’s Distance: The Earth Mover’s Distance (or EMD) is a method commonly used in image retrieval applications. The authors of this paper propose its use to calculate similarity in space use in the framework of movement ecology. This will be helpful for many questions regarding behavioural ecology, wildlife management and conservation.

 warbleR: The R package warbleR is a new package for the analysis of animal acoustic signal structure. It offers functions for downloading avian vocalisations from the open-access online repository Xeno-Canto, displaying the geographic extent of the recordings, manipulating sound files, detecting acoustic signals or importing detected signals from other software, and much more.

– meteR: The open-source R package, meteR directly calculates all of Maximum entropy theory of ecology’s (METE’s) predictions from a variety of data formats; automatically handles approximations and other technical details; and provides high-level plotting and model comparison functions to explore and interrogate models.

– Noise Egg: The Noise Egg is a device that can produce a low-frequency sound, which can be used as an experimental source of noise both in aquaria and in the field. It was developed to study the effects of noise on communication and behaviour in small aquatic animals; however, it could be used for other purposes, such as testing the propagation of certain frequencies in shallow-water habitats.

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Issue 7.11

Issue 7.11 is now online!

The November issue of Methods is now online!

This month’s issue contains four Applications articles and two Open Access articles, all of which are freely available.

– moveHMM: This R package allows ecologists to process GPS tracking data into series of step lengths and turning angles, and to fit a hidden Markov model to these data, allowing, in particular, for the incorporation of environmental covariates.

– BORIS: An open-source and multiplatform standalone program that allows a user-specific coding environment to be set for a computer-based review of previously recorded videos or live observations. Being open to user-specific settings, the program allows a project-based ethogram to be defined that can then be shared with collaborators, or can be imported or modified.

– inbreedR: An R package that provides functions to measure variance in inbreeding – through the strength of correlation in heterozygosity across marker loci – based on microsatellite and SNP markers with associated P-values and confidence intervals. Within the framework of Heterozygosity–fitness correlation theory, inbreedR also estimates the impact of inbreeding on marker heterozygosity and fitness.

– Terrestrial Precipitation Analysis: This package is comprised of the Precipitation Trends (P-Trend), Precipitation Attributes (P-Att) and Precipitation Manipulation (P-Man) tools. Combined, these web tools allow researchers to easily calculate fundamental precipitation statistics for past, present and projected future precipitation regimes for any terrestrial location in the world.

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moveHMM: An Interview with Théo Michelot

David Warton (University of New South Wales) interviews Théo Michelot (University of Sheffield) about an article on his recent R package moveHMM in Methods in Ecology and Evolution. David and Théo also discuss the case study in the paper – on the understudied wild haggis – and what advances could be made to the package in future.

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