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Testing prediction accuracy in short-term ecological studies

March 1, 2020

Applied ecology is based on an assumption that a management action will result in a predicted outcome. Testing the prediction accuracy of ecological models is the most powerful way of evaluating the knowledge implicit in this cause-effect relationship, however, the prevalence of predictive modeling and prediction testing are spreading slowly in ecology. The challenge of prediction testing is particularly acute for small-scale studies, because withholding data for prediction testing (e.g., via k-fold cross validation) can reduce model precision. However, by necessity small-scale studies are common. We use one such study that explored small mammal abundance along an elevational gradient to test prediction accuracy of models with varying degrees of information content. For each of three small mammal species, we conducted 5000 iterations of the following process: (1) randomly selected 75 % of the data to develop generalized linear models of species abundance that used detailed site measurements as covariates, (2) used an information theoretic approach to compare the top model with detailed covariates to habitat type-only and null models constructed with the same data, (3) tested those models’ ability to predict the 25 % of the randomly withheld data, and (4) evaluated prediction accuracy with a quadratic loss function. Detailed models fit the model-evaluation data best but had greater expected prediction error when predicting out-of-sample data relative to the habitat type models. Relationships between species and detailed site variables may be evident only within the framework of explicitly hierarchical analyses. We show that even with a small but relatively typical dataset (n = 28 sampling locations across 125 km over two years), researchers can effectively compare models with different information content and measure models’ predictive power, thus evaluating their own ecological understanding and defining the limits of their inferences. Identifying the appropriate scope of inference through prediction testing is ecologically valuable and is attainable even with small datasets.

Publication Year 2020
Title Testing prediction accuracy in short-term ecological studies
DOI 10.1016/j.baae.2020.01.003
Authors Connor M. Wood, Zachary G. Loman, Shawn T. McKinney, Cynthia S. Loftin
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Basic and Applied Ecology
Index ID 70227680
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Leetown