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J Theor Biol. 2004 Jul 21;229(2):209-20.

How to reliably estimate the tortuosity of an animal's path: straightness, sinuosity, or fractal dimension?

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Behavioural Ecology Group, Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionelle et Evolutive, CNRS, 1919 Route de Mende, F-34293, Montpellier 5, France.


The tortuosity of an animal's path is a key parameter in orientation and searching behaviours. The tortuosity of an oriented path is inversely related to the efficiency of the orientation mechanism involved, the best mechanism being assumed to allow the animal to reach its goal along a straight line movement. The tortuosity of a random search path controls the local searching intensity, allowing the animal to adjust its search effort to the local profitability of the environment. This paper shows that (1) the efficiency of an oriented path can be reliably estimated by a straightness index computed as the ratio between the distance from the starting point to the goal and the path length travelled to reach the goal, but such a simple index, ranging between 0 and 1, cannot be applied to random search paths; (2) the tortuosity of a random search path, ranging between straight line movement and Brownian motion, can be reliably estimated by a sinuosity index which combines the mean cosine of changes of direction with the mean step length; and (3) in the current state of the art, the fractal analysis of animals' paths, which may appear as an alternative and promising way to measure the tortuosity of a random search path as a fractal dimension ranging between 1 (straight line movement) and 2 (Brownian motion), is only liable to generate artifactual results. This paper also provides some help for distinguishing between oriented and random search paths, and depicts a general, comprehensive framework for analysing individual animals' paths in a two-dimensional space.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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