A virtual ecologist approach for improving methods in movement ecology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Biological and Environmental Sciences


As human encroachment into natural systems continues, we must develop ways to
reconcile human and animal needs while protecting biodiversity and human health.
Studying animal movement provides incredible insights into their requirements [1, 2]
as well as highlighting anthropogenic impacts [3, 4] and potential conflict areas [5,
6]. Insights from movement ecology are frequently incorporated into conservation
plans [7]; therefore, it is imperative we fully grasp the generalisability and
robustness of these findings.
Low sample sizes, localised studies, and a growing diversity of analytical
approaches could all be limiting generalisability and replicability in movement
ecology, but assessing the replicability of ecological studies is costly and
disincentivised by the current publication system [8], despite a clear agreement on
replication's value. Movement ecology in particular, with its rapid growth and
reliance on expensive telemetry devices, has yet to be subjected to rigorous
replicability efforts.
To avoid further costs to both animals and researchers associated with repeat
studies, we can leverage a virtual ecologist approach to explore a key component
implicated in undermining replicability of results - researcher degrees of freedom
[9]. Researcher degrees of freedom, or analytical flexibility, can be used to generate
findings that better fit within the publishing incentive system, namely narrativelycoherent significant results. However, these incentives can reward underpowered
extreme results over robust, more reliable but less glamorous studies [10, 11]. A
virtual ecology approach will reveal what options are available to researchers when
assessing movement ecology data, and via the implementation of a multiverse
analysis [12], identify what choices can markedly impact results from a known
simulated truth.
Research Objectives
The foundation of this project is the development of an agent-based model to
simulate animal movement, integrating several key components: spatial covariates
(e.g., habitat and connectivity), central tendency (i.e., home range), behavioural
states (e.g., resting, foraging, and dispersal), and interspecific & intraspecific
relationships (e.g., attraction & avoidance). The model will then be used to explore
how researcher choice impacts findings, and how these findings deviate from
parameters used to characterise the simulated data. Once the impacts of analysis
choice are known, the student will apply them to a real world scenario and illustrate
the utility of multiverse analysis in displaying the robustness of results.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/S007431/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2027
2620844 Studentship NE/S007431/1 01/10/2021 31/03/2025 Benjamin Marshall