Dynamic species classification of microorganisms across time, abiotic and biotic environments—A sliding window approach


The development of video-based monitoring methods allows for rapid, dynamic and accurate monitoring of individuals or communities, compared to slower traditional methods, with far reaching ecological and evolutionary applications. Large amounts of data are generated using video-based methods, which can be effectively processed using machine learning (ML) algorithms into meaningful ecological information. ML uses user defined classes (e.g. species), derived from a subset (i.e. training data) of video-observed quantitative features (e.g. phenotypic variation), to infer classes in subsequent observations. However, phenotypic variation often changes due to environmental conditions, which may lead to poor classification, if environmentally induced variation in phenotypes is not accounted for. Here we describe a framework for classifying species under changing environmental conditions based on the random forest classification. A sliding window approach was developed that restricts temporal and environmentally conditions to improve the classification. We tested our approach by applying the classification framework to experimental data. The experiment used a set of six ciliate species to monitor changes in community structure and behavior over hundreds of generations, in dozens of species combinations and across a temperature gradient. Differences in biotic and abiotic conditions caused simplistic classification approaches to be unsuccessful. In contrast, the sliding window approach allowed classification to be highly successful, as phenotypic differences driven by environmental change, could be captured by the classifier. Importantly, classification using the random forest algorithm showed comparable success when validated against traditional, slower, manual identification. Our framework allows for reliable classification in dynamic environments, and may help to improve strategies for long-term monitoring of species in changing environments. Our classification pipeline can be applied in fields assessing species community dynamics, such as eco-toxicology, ecology and evolutionary ecology.

PLOS ONE, (12), 5, pp. e0176682, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176682
Frank Pennekamp
Postdoctoral researcher in ecology