Information on ecological systems often comes from diverse sources with varied levels of complexity, bias, and uncertainty. Accordingly, analytical techniques continue to evolve that address these challenges to reveal the characteristics of ecological systems and inform conservation actions. We applied multiple statistical learning algorithms (i.e., machine learning) with a range of information sources including fish tracking data, environmental data, and visual surveys to identify potential spawning aggregation sites for a marine fish species, permit (Trachinotus falcatus), in the Florida Keys. Recognizing the potential complementarity and some level of uncertainty in each information source, we applied supervised (classic and conditional random forests; RF) and unsupervised (fuzzy k-means; FKM) algorithms. The two RF models had similar predictive performance, but generated different predictor variable importance structures and spawning site predictions. Unsupervised clustering using FKM identified unique site groupings that were similar to the likely spawning sites identified with RF. The conservation of aggregate spawning fish species depends heavily on the protection of key spawning sites; many of these potential sites were identified here for permit in the Florida Keys, which consisted of relatively deep-water natural and artificial reefs with high mean permit residency periods. The application of multiple machine learning algorithms enabled the integration of diverse information sources to develop models of an ecological system. Faced with increasingly complex and diverse data sources, ecologists, and conservation practitioners should find increasing value in machine learning algorithms, which we discuss here and provide resources to increase accessibility.
Brownscombe Jacob W, Griffin Lucas P, Morley Danielle, Acosta Alejandro, Hunt John, Lowerre-Barbieri Susan K, Adams Aaron J, Danylchuk Andy J, Cooke Steven J
Conservation, Ecology, Machine learning, Marine biology, Spawning aggregations