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When to be discrete: The importance of time formulation in understanding animal movement

January 1, 2016

Animal movement is essential to our understanding of population dynamics, animal behavior, and the impacts of global change. Coupled with high-resolution biotelemetry data, exciting new inferences about animal movement have been facilitated by various specifications of contemporary models. These approaches differ, but most share common themes. One key distinction is whether the underlying movement process is conceptualized in discrete or continuous time. This is perhaps the greatest source of confusion among practitioners, both in terms of implementation and biological interpretation. In general, animal movement occurs in continuous time but we observe it at fixed discrete-time intervals. Thus, continuous time is conceptually and theoretically appealing, but in practice it is perhaps more intuitive to interpret movement in discrete intervals. With an emphasis on state-space models, we explore the differences and similarities between continuous and discrete versions of mechanistic movement models, establish some common terminology, and indicate under which circumstances one form might be preferred over another. Counter to the overly simplistic view that discrete- and continuous-time conceptualizations are merely different means to the same end, we present novel mathematical results revealing hitherto unappreciated consequences of model formulation on inferences about animal movement. Notably, the speed and direction of movement are intrinsically linked in current continuous-time random walk formulations, and this can have important implications when interpreting animal behavior. We illustrate these concepts in the context of state-space models with multiple movement behavior states using northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) biotelemetry data.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2014
Title When to be discrete: The importance of time formulation in understanding animal movement
DOI 10.1186/s40462-014-0021-6
Authors Brett T. McClintock, Devin S. Johnson, Mevin Hooten, Jay M. Ver Hoef, Juan M. Morales
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Movement Ecology
Index ID 70173668
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle

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