An ‘orientation sphere’ visualisation for examining animal head movements

by Rory P. Wilson, Hannah Williams, Mark D. Holton, Agustina di Virgilio, Carlos M. Duarte,
Research article Year: 2020 ISSN: 2045-7758 DOI: 10.1002/ece3.6197


Wilson, R. P., Williams, H. J., Holton, M. D., Di Virgilio, A., Börger, L., Potts, J. R.,Duarte, C.M., ... & Scantlebury, D. M. (2020). An “orientation sphere” visualization for examining animal head movements. Ecology and Evolution10(10), 4291-4302.


  1. Animal behavior is elicited, in part, in response to external conditions, but understanding how animals perceive the environment and make the decisions that bring about these behavioral responses is challenging.
  2. Animal heads often move during specific behaviors and, additionally, typically have sensory systems (notably vision, smell, and hearing) sampling in defined arcs (normally to the front of their heads). As such, head-mounted electronic sensors consisting of accelerometers and magnetometers, which can be used to determine the movement and directionality of animal heads (where head “movement” is defined here as changes in heading [azimuth] and/or pitch [elevation angle]), can potentially provide information both on behaviors in general and also clarify which parts of the environment the animals might be prioritizing (“environmental framing”).
  3. We propose a new approach to visualize the data of such head-mounted tags that combines the instantaneous outputs of head heading and pitch in a single intuitive spherical plot. This sphere has magnetic heading denoted by “longitude” position and head pitch by “latitude” on this “orientation sphere” (O-sphere).
  4. We construct the O-sphere for the head rotations of a number of vertebrates with contrasting body shape and ecology (oryx, sheep, tortoises, and turtles), illustrating various behaviors, including foraging, walking, and environmental scanning. We also propose correcting head orientations for body orientations to highlight specific heading-independent head rotation, and propose the derivation of O-sphere-metrics, such as angular speed across the sphere. This should help identify the functions of various head behaviors.
  5. Visualizations of the O-sphere provide an intuitive representation of animal behavior manifest via head orientation and rotation. This has ramifications for quantifying and understanding behaviors ranging from navigation through vigilance to feeding and, when used in tandem with body movement, should provide an important link between perception of the environment and response to it in free-ranging animals.