Hierarchical Nonlinear Spatio-temporal Agent-Based Models for Collective Animal Movement

Patrick L. McDermott, Christopher K. Wikle, Joshua Millspaugh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Modeling complex collective animal movement presents distinct challenges. In particular, modeling the interactions between animals and the nonlinear behaviors associated with these interactions, while accounting for uncertainty in data, model, and parameters, requires a flexible modeling framework. To address these challenges, we propose a general hierarchical framework for modeling collective movement behavior with multiple stages. Each of these stages can be thought of as processes that are flexible enough to model a variety of complex behaviors. For example, self-propelled particle (SPP) models (e.g., Vicsek et al. in Phys Rev Lett 75:1226–1229, 1995) represent collective behavior and are often applied in the physics and biology literature. To date, the study and application of these models has almost exclusively focused on simulation studies, with less attention given to rigorously quantifying the uncertainty. Here, we demonstrate our general framework with a hierarchical version of the SPP model applied to collective animal movement. This structure allows us to make inference on potential covariates (e.g., habitat) that describe the behavior of agents and rigorously quantify uncertainty. Further, this framework allows for the discrete time prediction of animal locations in the presence of missing observations. Due to the computational challenges associated with the proposed model, we develop an approximate Bayesian computation algorithm for estimation. We illustrate the hierarchical SPP methodology with a simulation study and by modeling the movement of guppies. Supplementary materials accompanying this paper appear online.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)294-312
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Agricultural, Biological, and Environmental Statistics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017


  • Agent-based models
  • Approximate Bayesian computation
  • Collective movement
  • Hierarchical model
  • Nonlinear modeling
  • Self-propelled particle model


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