Machine learning methods without tears: A primer for ecologists

J.D. Olden, J.J. Lawler, LeRoy POFF

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    530 Citations (Scopus)


    Machine learning methods, a family of statistical techniques with origins in the field of artificial intelligence, are recognized as holding great promise for the advancement of understanding and prediction about ecological phenomena. These modeling techniques are flexible enough to handle complex problems with multiple interacting elements and typically outcompete traditional approaches (e.g., generalized linear models), making them ideal for modeling ecological systems. Despite their inherent advantages, a review of the literature reveals only a modest use of these approaches in ecology as compared to other disciplines. One potential explanation for this lack of interest is that machine learning techniques do not fall neatly into the class of statistical modeling approaches with which most ecologists are familiar. In this paper, we provide an introduction to three machine learning approaches that can be broadly used by ecologists: classification and regression trees, artificial neural networks, and evolutionary computation. For each approach, we provide a brief background to the methodology, give examples of its application in ecology, describe model development and implementation, discuss strengths and weaknesses, explore the availability of statistical software, and provide an illustrative example. Although the ecological application of machine learning approaches has increased, there remains considerable skepticism with respect to the role of these techniques in ecology. Our review encourages a greater understanding of machine learning approaches and promotes their future application and utilization, while also providing a basis from which ecologists can make informed decisions about whether to select or avoid these approaches in their future modeling endeavors.
    Original languageUndefined
    Pages (from-to)171-193
    Number of pages23
    JournalQuarterly Review of Biology
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2008

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