Classification is one of the most widely applied tasks in ecology. Ecologists have to deal with noisy, highdimensional data that often are non-linear and do not meet the assumptions of conventional statistical procedures. To overcome this problem, machine-learning methods have been adopted as ecological classification methods. We compared five machine-learning based classification techniques (classification trees, random forests, artificial neural networks, support vector machines, and automatically induced rulebased fuzzy models) in a biological conservation context. The study case was that of the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), a bird endemic to the Yucatan peninsula that has suffered considerable decreases in local abundance and distributional area during the last few decades. On a grid of 10×10 km cells that was superimposed to the peninsula we analysed relationships between environmental and social explanatory variables and ocellated turkey abundance changes between 1980 and 2000. Abundance was expressed in three (decrease, no change, and increase) and 14 more detailed abundance change classes, respectively.
Modelling performance varied considerably between methods with random forests and classification trees being the most efficient ones as measured by overall classification error and the normalised mutual information index. Artificial neural networks yielded the worst results along with linear discriminant analysis, which was included as a conventional statistical approach. We not only evaluated classification accuracy but also characteristics such as time effort, classifier comprehensibility and method intricacy—aspects that determine the success of a classification technique among ecologists and conservation biologists as well as for the communication with managers and decision makers. We recommend the combined use of classification trees and random forests due to the easy interpretability of classifiers and the high comprehensibility of the method.