Jack Tatler, Phillip Cassey, and Thomas A. A. Prowse
Accelerometers are a valuable tool for studying animal behaviour and physiology where direct observation is unfeasible. However, giving biological meaning to multivariate acceleration data is challenging. Here, we describe a method that reliably classifies a large number of behaviours using tri-axial accelerometer data collected at the low sampling frequency of 1 Hz, using the dingo (Canis dingo) as an example. We used out-of-sample validation to compare the predictive performance of four commonly used classification models (random forest, k-nearest neighbour, support vector machine, and naïve Bayes). We tested the importance of predictor variable selection and moving window size for the classification of each behaviour and overall model performance. Random forests produced the highest out-of-sample classification accuracy, with our best-performing model predicting 14 behaviours with a mean accuracy of 87%. We also investigated the relationship between overall dynamic body acceleration (ODBA) and the activity level of each behaviour, given the increasing use of ODBA in ecophysiology as a proxy for energy expenditure. ODBA values for our four ‘high activity’ behaviours were significantly greater than all other behaviours, with an overall positive trend between ODBA and intensity of movement. We show that a random forest model of relatively low complexity can mitigate some major challenges associated with establishing meaningful ecological conclusions from acceleration data. Our approach has broad applicability to free-ranging terrestrial quadrupeds of comparable size. Our use of a low sampling frequency shows potential for deploying accelerometers over extended time periods, enabling the capture of invaluable behavioural and physiological data across different ontogenies.