Population Ecology

, Volume 56, Issue 1, pp 7–19 | Cite as

Meta-models as a straightforward approach to the sensitivity analysis of complex models

Special feature: Original article Mathematical Models for Effective Environmental Management


Complex simulation models are important tools in applied ecological and conservation research. However sensitivity analysis of this important class of models can be difficult to conduct. High level interactions and non-linear responses are common in complex simulations, and this necessitates a global sensitivity analysis, where each parameter is tested at a range of values, and in combination with changes in many other parameters. We reviewed the literature, searching for population viability analyses that used simulation models. We found only 9 out of the 122 simulation population viability analysis used global sensitivity analysis. This result is typical of other simulation models in applied ecology, where global sensitivity analysis is rare. We then demonstrate how to conduct a meta-modeling sensitivity analysis, where a simpler statistically fit function (the meta-model, also known as the surrogate model or emulator) is used to approximate the behavior of the complicated simulation. This simpler meta-model is interrogated to inform on the behavior of simulation model. We fit two example meta-models, a generalized linear model and a boosted regression tree, to exemplify the approach. Our hope is that by going through these techniques thoroughly they will become more widely adopted.


Boosted regression trees Generalized linear models Meta-models Population viability analyses Simulation model 



SRC is supported by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program. HY is supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 25281057.

Supplementary material

10144_2013_422_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (296 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 296 kb)
10144_2013_422_MOESM2_ESM.r (31 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (R 31 kb)


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Copyright information

© The Society of Population Ecology and Springer Japan 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Decisions Group, The School of Biological SciencesThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Center for Environmental Risk ResearchNational Institute for Environmental StudiesTsukubaJapan

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