Classification of collective behavior: a comparison of tracking and machine learning methods to study the effect of ambient light on fish shoaling

Sachit Butail, Philip Salerno, Erik M. Bollt, Maurizio Porfiri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Traditional approaches for the analysis of collective behavior entail digitizing the position of each individual, followed by evaluation of pertinent group observables, such as cohesion and polarization. Machine learning may enable considerable advancements in this area by affording the classification of these observables directly from images. While such methods have been successfully implemented in the classification of individual behavior, their potential in the study collective behavior is largely untested. In this paper, we compare three methods for the analysis of collective behavior: simple tracking (ST) without resolving occlusions, machine learning with real data (MLR), and machine learning with synthetic data (MLS). These methods are evaluated on videos recorded from an experiment studying the effect of ambient light on the shoaling tendency of Giant danios. In particular, we compute average nearest-neighbor distance (ANND) and polarization using the three methods and compare the values with manually-verified ground-truth data. To further assess possible dependence on sampling rate for computing ANND, the comparison is also performed at a low frame rate. Results show that while ST is the most accurate at higher frame rate for both ANND and polarization, at low frame rate for ANND there is no significant difference in accuracy between the three methods. In terms of computational speed, MLR and MLS take significantly less time to process an image, with MLS better addressing constraints related to generation of training data. Finally, all methods are able to successfully detect a significant difference in ANND as the ambient light intensity is varied irrespective of the direction of intensity change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1020-1031
Number of pages12
JournalBehavior Research Methods
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 8 2014


  • Giant danio
  • Group observable
  • Isomap
  • Social behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology


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