Bayesian Hierarchical Methods and the Use of Ecological Thresholds and Changepoints for Habitat Selection Models

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Virginia Tech

Modeling the complex relationships between habitat characteristics and a species' habitat preferences pose many difficult problems for ecological researchers. These problems are complicated further when information is collected over a range of time or space. Additionally, the variety of factors affecting these choices is difficult to understand and even more difficult to accurately collect information about. In light of these concerns, we evaluate the performance of current standard habitat preference models that are based on Bayesian methods and then present some extensions and supplements to those methods that prove to be very useful. More specifically, we demonstrate the value of extending the standard Bayesian hierarchical model using finite mixture model methods. Additionally, we demonstrate that an extension of the Bayesian hierarchical changepoint model to allow for estimating multiple changepoints simultaneously can be very informative when applied to data about multiple habitat locations or species. These models allow the researcher to compare the sites or species with respect to a very specific ecological question and consequently provide definitive answers that are often not available with more commonly used models containing many explanatory factors. Throughout our work we use a complex data set containing information about horseshoe crab spawning habitat preferences in the Delaware Bay over a five-year period. These data epitomize some of the difficult issues inherent to studying habitat preferences. The data are collected over time at many sites, have missing observations, and include explanatory variables that, at best, only provide surrogate information for what researchers feel is important in explaining spawning preferences throughout the bay. We also looked at a smaller data set of freshwater mussel habitat selection preferences in relation to bridge construction on the Kennerdell River in Western Pennsylvania. Together, these two data sets provided us with insight in developing and refining the methods we present. They also help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the methods we discuss by assessing their performance in real situations where data are inevitably complex and relationships are difficult to discern.

changepoint detection, horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus), Bayesian hierarchical models, thresholds, habitat selection