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Building Interpretable Machine Learning Models to Identify Chemometric Trends in Seabirds of the North Pacific Ocean



Nathan Mahynski, Jared Ragland, Stacy Schuur, Vincent K. Shen


Marine environmental monitoring efforts often rely on the bioaccumulation of persistent anthropogenic contaminants in organisms to create a spatiotemporal record of the ecosystem. Intercorrelation results from the origin, uptake, and transport of these contaminants throughout the ecosystem and may be affected by organism-specific processes such as biotransformation. Here, we explore trends that machine learning tools reveal about a large, recently released environmental chemistry data set of common anthropogenic pollutants measured in the eggs of five seabird species from the North Pacific Ocean. We modeled these data with a variety of machine learning approaches and found models that could accurately determine a range of taxonomic and spatiotemporal trends. We illustrate a general workflow and set of analysis tools that can be used to identify interpretable models which perform nearly as well as state-of-the-art "black boxes." For example, we found shallow decision trees that could resolve genus with greater than 96% accuracy using as few as two analytes and a k-nearest neighbor classifier that could resolve species differences with more than 94% accuracy using only five analytes. The benefits of interpretability outweighed the marginally improved accuracy of more complex models. This demonstrates how machine learning may be used to discover rational, quantitative trends in these systems.
Environmental Science & Technology


Mahynski, N. , Ragland, J. , Schuur, S. and Shen, V. (2022), Building Interpretable Machine Learning Models to Identify Chemometric Trends in Seabirds of the North Pacific Ocean, Environmental Science & Technology, [online],, (Accessed April 20, 2024)
Created October 5, 2022, Updated September 13, 2023