Ecosystem Modeling – 03 Applications

Ecosystem Analysis Using Probabilistic Relational Modeling


CleverSet is currently engaged in two ecological modeling projects: community-level modeling of the Crater Lake ecosystem (USGS) (Jorgensen et al., 2003) and community-level modeling of West Nile virus disease transmission (Orme-Zavaleta et al., 2003).

Crater Lake


The National Park Service is concerned about long-term changes in the clarity of Crater Lake, a national park and the clearest deep-water lake in the world. Although many domain-specific surveys have been undertaken, the analytical framework necessary to link these analyses into one overall assessment of lake health has been lacking. Our goal in this project has been to formulate multiple, complex, simultaneous hypotheses given all the data obtained from the long-term studies of the lake (Larson et al., 1993). These data have been collected using varying time and spatial scales. For example, surface weather condition information is available on a daily basis, but phytoplankton densities are measured only once or twice a month (and not at all in winter), while rocket-borne instrumentation to gather weather data at altitude is only rarely available.


In an initial Crater Lake analysis performed for USGS, we chose a set of temporal units to frame the analysis. These units were time periods corresponding to observed patterns of clarity of the lake and for which data were available: June-July, August, September-October. We then added a table containing these time units (this unary relation establishes the basic time scale), and relating hydrological seasons annually (this binary relation establishes the basic unit of time-lag to be considered in the analysis), and related the data tables we wished to include in the analysis to this temporal table. A complete schema for the analysis is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 2 shows the essential elements of the discovered model (we omit some schema elements for clarity). One relationship we discovered is that the dominant fish species in gill net catches was probabilistically dependent upon Secchi descending depth (water clarity) in the current year, mean fish weight in the current year, descending Secchi depth the previous year and dominant fish species two years previous. This and findings concerning age class structure agreed with the anecdotal evidence that schools of Kokanee smolts swimming at the edges of the lake were preyed upon by mature Rainbow trout, where they were caught in gill nets. This phenomenon does not occur every year. A time lag of two years, discovered by the model, is consistent with experts’ observations. The relation between this interaction and water quality was previously unknown. Other somewhat surprising discoveries include: (1) the centrality of water clarity (measured by the Secchi “DesDepth” parameter); and (2) the lack of a direct relationship between Zooplankton count and water clarity, at least at the spatio-temporal scale studied. These finding suggest that fish attributes may serve as a predictor of water clarity.

Figure 1. Crater Lake Schema


Figure 2. Crater Lake PRM


The Crater Lake project highlighted the centrality of time in such analyses. Time creates several challenges for relational model discovery:

  1. Time is rarely reified in relational schema. This presents a problem in constructing paths like “secchi.DesDepth.yrSegment.Phyto.density.” Our solution in this case was to manually add a “Season” table. We have since implemented facilities for partially automating this process, by recognizing and re-ifying data/time information in schema’s.
  2. Once time was reified, two further decisions were necessary: we established an aggregation unit for time and we separately established a lag duration. Expert knowledge was used to establish both, based on domain knowledge and understanding of the goals of the modeling. In future we hope to explore extensions of existing statistical time series analysis methods to aid in this process.

A second problem that arose in this analysis was the frequent desire to form synthetic variables outside the scope of the current path language. For example, there were times when prior knowledge suggested that the density of a particular phytoplankton species might be a relevant parameter. Our current synthetic variable grammar does not allow for selection of a subset of the items retrieved by a path.

Finally, the goal of this project was to gain scientific insight into data that had been collected over 25 or more years (Secchi depth readings go back to the 1880s!). We found that learning models over not just the variables in the provided tables, but over their parents as well, provided additional insight. An example fragment from such an extended model, for the Fish Specimen table and its immediate parents, is shown in Figure 3. This extended model shows interactions not obvious in Figure 2, such as the multiple pathways through which Mean Secchi depth (two years previous) interacts with current Mean fish age.

West Nile Virus


While the Crater Lake project involves building a relational model over multiple databases of similar type, our work with the EPA on modeling the spread of West Nile Virus involves combining multiple databases of differing types. One class of database contains incident reports (e.g., reports of dead birds testing positive for WNV, report of pools of water in which breeding mosquito populations test positive for WNV, human case reports, etc.). Each database contains reports of one type of event, located in place and time. A second class of database contains records of static features, such as the presence of a tire disposal facility (potential mosquito breeding site) or landscape type at a location. The challenge was to integrate these multiple databases into an overall model of West Nile Virus spread.

Figure 3. FishSpeciman Unrolled Model


The first step in our integration of these data sources was the construction of an integrated data schema across these data sources through the addition of intensional relations linking the information in space and time. Knowing that each database recorded location in columns labeled latitude and longitude, and time as day/month/year, enabled us to construct a common spatio-temporal frame of reference. The simple recognition of point location in space and time, however, is not enough to integrate these data sources. Rarely do two events occur at precisely the same place or time. Rather, we imposed a scale across both the spatial and temporal dimensions. The parameters of this scale (five miles for space, and one month for time) were drawn from scientific knowledge about the life cycle of the vector of interest, the mosquito, and the typical flight distance for the competent bird host. Again, this was done by hand in our preliminary studies to date.


Figure 4 shows a preliminary model of the spread of West Nile Virus in Maryland in 2001. Shown is a model over the synthetic variables constructed starting from the table of positive bird records.

The results support previous hypotheses that tire disposal site license density is correlated with incidence of West Nile Virus in birds. Tire disposal facilities may affect disease spread directly, by serving as breeding areas for mosquitoes, or may be a proxy for population density, which may in turn affect sampling and/or disease prevalence (e.g., though human movement through the region). The results also suggest that disease prevalence in mosquito pools may be a predictor of disease appearance in birds. The number of human and horse cases in 2001 was too small to support any significant findings related to these cases. However, even with these sparse data, the model produced is consistent with current knowledge regarding the manner in which the disease is transmitted and forms a framework in which future findings may be evaluated. The fact that horse cases do not contribute significant information to the model provides preliminary evidence that monitoring this incompetent host may be unnecessary in tracking the spread of this disease.


Figure 4. West Nile Virus Model Fragment

Since the mechanistic model of disease spread is not completely known, the temporal and spatial models included in the model may not be the only, or even the most useful scales at which to view interactions. Finer spatial resolutions, for example, might provide evidence about the species of birds and mosquitoes involved in transmission. Landscape level data, for example, landcover type, might also improve the descriptive and predictive capabilities of the model. As mentioned in our discussion of the Crater Lake study, our current manual methods do not permit easy exploration of possible scales.


Our work on West Nile Virus propagation reinforces the need for selectors in synthetic variables. Unlike Crater Lake, however, where the selectors where over the values of primitive attributes, in the analysis of West Nile Virus, we needed to form equality selectors over entities (e.g., positive mosquitoes in adjacent geocells in the same month). We extended our synthetic variable grammar to include a single selector phrase. A selector is a Boolean operator mapped over the elements of the base path defining a synthetic variable. Elements for which the selector returns true and included in the result, and elements for which it returns false are omitted. The selector consists of a Boolean operator and two paths. The first path is applied to the table entry at the head of the base path for the synthetic variable, and the second path is applied to each table entry retrieved by the base path. For example, consider:

PosBirds.GeoCell.PosMosq ==(PosBird.month,PosMosq.month).Count()

The base path (“PosBirds.GeoCell.PosMosq”) yields a set of positive mosquito entries in the same spatial region as a bird entry. The selector (“==(PosBird.month, PosMosq.month)”) then filters out all entries not in the same month as the positive bird record. Finally, the “Count()” aggregator returns a scalar, the cardinality of the resulting set1.

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