Bayesian Networks as a novel tool to enhance interpretability and predictive power of ecological models

Edwin Hui, Richard Stafford, Iain McCombe Matthews, V.A. Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

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In today’s world, it is becoming increasingly important to have the tools to understand, and ultimately to predict, the response of ecosystems to disturbance. However, understanding such dynamics is not simple. Ecosystems are a complex network of species interactions, and therefore any change to a population of one species will have some degree of community level effect. In recent years, the use of Bayesian networks (BNs) has seen successful applications in molecular biology and ecology, where they were able to recover plausible links in the respective systems they were applied to. The recovered network also comes with a quantifiable metric of interaction strength between variables. While the latter is an invaluable piece of information in ecology, an unexplored application of BNs would be using them as a novel variable selection tool in the training of predictive models. To this end, we evaluate the potential usefulness of BNs in two aspects: (1) we apply BN inference on species abundance data from a rocky shore ecosystem, a system with well documented links, to test the ecological validity of the revealed network; and (2) we evaluate BNs as a novel variable selection method to guide the training of an artificial neural network (ANN). Here, we demonstrate that not only was this approach able to recover meaningful species interactions networks from ecological data, but it also served as a meaningful tool to inform the training of predictive models, where there was an improvement in predictive performance in models with BN variable selection. Combining these results, we demonstrate the potential of this novel application of BNs in enhancing the interpretability and predictive power of ecological models; this has general applicability beyond the studied system, to ecosystems where existing relationships between species and other functional components are unknown.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101539
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Informatics
Early online date22 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2022


  • Bayesian networks
  • Artificial neural networks
  • Rocky shores
  • Variable selection
  • Predictive ecological model


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