Circular data in biology: advice for effectively implementing statistical procedures

Lukas Landler, Graeme D. Ruxton, E. Pascal Malkemper*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)
2 Downloads (Pure)


Circular data are common in biological studies. The most fundamental question that can be asked of a sample of circular data is whether it suggests that the underlying population is uniformly distributed around the circle, or whether it is concentrated around at least one preferred direction (e.g. a migratory goal or activity phase). We compared the statistical power of five commonly used tests (the Rayleigh test, the V-test, Watson’s test, Kuiper’s test and Rao’s spacing test) across a range of different unimodal scenarios. The V-test showed higher power for symmetrical distributions, Rao’s spacing performed worst for all explored unimodal distributions tested and the remaining three tests showed very similar performance. However, the V-test only applies if the hypothesis is restricted to one (pre-specified) direction of interest. In all other unimodal cases, we recommend using the Rayleigh test. Much less explored is the multimodal case with data concentrated around several directions. We performed power simulations for a variety of multimodal situations, testing the performance of the widely used Rayleigh, Rao’s, Watson, and Kuiper’s tests as well as the more recent Bogdan and Hermans-Rasson tests. Our analyses of alternative statistical methods show that the commonly used tests lack statistical power in many of multimodal cases. Transformation of the raw data (e.g. doubling the angles) can overcome some of the issues, but only in the case of perfect f-fold symmetry. However, the Hermans-Rasson method, which is not yet implemented in any software package, outcompetes the alternative tests (often by substantial margins) in most of the multimodal situations explored. We recommend the wider uptake of the powerful but hitherto neglected Hermans-Rasson method. In summary, we provide guidance for biologists helping them to make decisions when testing circular data for single or multiple departures from uniformity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number128
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number8
Early online date11 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2018


  • Animal navigation
  • Biostatistics
  • Chronobiology
  • Circadian
  • Emlen funnel
  • Magnetoreception


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