Post provided by Jordan Milner

Every year Methods in Ecology and Evolution rewards Robert May Award in the best paper published in the journal by an author early in their career. Ten early Career Researchers entered the shortlist for this year’s award, including Jordan Milner who studied for his doctorate at the University of Sheffield in the UK. In this interview, Jordan shares knowledge about his letter ‘Modeling and completion for the movement of interacting animals‘.

Tell us about your career stage, what you do, your hobbies and interests

I was studying for my PhD at the University of Sheffield while working on this article. During that time, I sat in the Statistics and Mathematical Biology research groups while developing statistical animal movement models that could be used to study movement patterns and social animal behaviors. I defended my thesis at the end of 2021 and have since worked in industry.

Outside of ecology, my interests lie in whatever sport is played nearby and I have recently been involved in woodworking. I’m also probably a little overwhelmed that I recently won a split!

How would you send your article to someone if you only had 30 seconds in the elevator?

Statistical modeling of animal movement data is a rapidly growing field of research as it allows us to study animal behavior when we cannot observe it directly. Much of this growth has to do with the development and application of models designed to analyze the movement of an individual animal. While those models are incredibly useful tools, they are not able to account for any social drive behind the behavior of an animal movement. The model we have presented in this paper is designed to capture that missing information.

The social framework of the model is based on a dynamic social hierarchy and thus we are able to conclude which animals are influencing the movement of a group and when. It is flexible enough to capture a wide range of social information, such as changes in leadership or number of subgroups.

Where did the idea to develop this method come from?

In various areas of the animal behavior / movement literature (e.g., those related to social media analysis, separation fusion dynamics, and other movement patterns), a common goal or desire is to you are able to capture the dynamics of social behavior and / or granular information. such as animals or influential subgroups. Such information can be useful for population management and conservation efforts and so I wanted to develop a movement model that could provide it.

The statistical basis of the model was inspired by previous work undertaken by my co-authors.

What were the main challenges in developing this method? How did you overcome this?

While I think the production of the model is simple to interpret, it is quite intricate under the hood. In particular, the movement of all animals studied is modeled along with a multivariate distribution, a distribution that requires a lot of derivation. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to bypass it – it was just a case of lowering the head until it was done!

How do you plan to apply the method you have published / what have you been working on since its publication?

The model in the article is suitable only for the homogeneous spatial case. I have since worked on its development for the heterogeneous spatial case, so that we can also look at how social behaviors interact with environmental factors.

Moreover, I have expanded the model so that an “interaction area” can be included in the framework. That is, animals can only be concluded to interact if they are in close proximity (it is also concluded). This feature adds some biological realism to the model by discouraging the end of the fake, overly distant interaction.

Who will benefit from your method?

The model was developed taking into account the management or conservation of the population. For example, it can help identify influential members of a group or help investigate how external factors (such as climate change) are influencing social dynamics.

In terms of species, anyone living in complex social groups. Although, due to the considerable estimated cost of adapting the data model, it is currently the most suitable for smaller groups.

If you could travel back in time, would you add or change anything about your method?

This article contains an early repetition of this modeling framework. As such, there is work to be done both in increasing its functionality (e.g., allowing spatial heterogeneity) and in reducing the estimated cost of adapting it to data. I had time to work on the former during the remainder of my doctorate, but not on the latter unfortunately.

You can read Jordan’s full letter here.

Learn more about the Robert May 2022 shortlist here.

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