An R package for video tracking animal movement


Citing pathtrackr:

Harmer AMT, Thomas DB. (2019). pathtrackr: An R package for video tracking and analysing animal movement. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 10: 1196-1202.


Visualising and analysing animal movement patterns is essential to many behavioural studies. While commercial options exist for analysing animal movement via video, the cost of these is often prohibitive. To meet the need for an efficient and cost-effective video tracking and analysis tool, we have developed the pathtrackr package. The pathtrackr package allows for an automated and consolidated workflow, from video input to statistical output of an animal’s movement. The tracking functions work across a variety of visual contexts, including heterogeneous backgrounds and variable lighting, and can deal with small amounts of localised background movement. We also include diagnostic tools in the package for troubleshooting. Planned future updates will include the ability to track multiple animals simultaneously, extending the functionality to track animal interactions.

pathtrackr differs from other tracking software in that it does not require a homogenous background that is always lighter or always darker than the animal. Using background subtraction of a computed blank reference frame that does not contain the animal, we are able to cleanly segment the animal despite fluctuating difference in contrast between the animal and background.

Details of tracking method

The tracking functions involve several steps as outlined below.

The user first denotes the boundaries of the arena, that are then applied to all other frames in the video. A clean background reference frame with no animal present is generated by loading a random sample of 1000 frames into a three-dimensional array (x, y, time). The median intensity value of each pixel over time is then calculated and stored as a two-dimensional reference array (x, y).

The user is then prompted to draw a box (the tracking box) around the position of the animal in the first frame. In each subsequent frame, only the pixels within the tracking box are processed, which greatly improves processing speed, as well as ignores any other background movement occuring outside the tracking box. Within the tracking box, the current frame’s pixel values are substracted from the reference frame pixel values, resulting in values of approximately zero for background pixels, and higher intensity value pixels where the animal is present. This image is then binarised based on pixel intensity, and animal pixels labelled via blob detection. An ellipse is fitted to the blob and its centroid calculated. The xy position of the centroid is stored before moving to the next frame where a new tracking box is drawn around the last known position of the animal and the above process repeated.

Small movements such as orientation changes or leg movements can cause ‘jitter’ in the detected path that results in overestimation of path length. Therefore we have included a jitter damping parameter to the tracking functions to elimante some of this noise. The number of pixels labelled as ‘animal’ after blob detection is recorded during each frame. If the position of labelled pixels overlaps by more than 90% (the default) between frames, the animal’s position is not updated. The jitter damping parameter can be adjusted to produce smooth paths (if appropriate for the animal being tracked).



You can install pathtrackr directly within R using the install_github() function from the devtoolspackage:

install_github("aharmer/pathtrackr", build_vignettes = TRUE)

Depending on your setup, you may also need to install Rtools first. If you need Rtools you will get an error message during pathtrackr installation. Just install Rtools then reinstall pathtrackr.

Alternatively, you can manually download and install the source package from the pathtrackrwebpage.

If you manually install pathtrackr, the following packages are also required: ggplot2, plyr, pbapply, abind, cluster, gridExtra, jpeg, marmap, EBImage, imager, viridis, raster.


The pathtrackr package includes functions for handling video files; splitVideo(), which compresses and splits a video into individual jpeg frames that are used by the tracking functions, and makeVideo(), which outputs an mp4 video file of the tracking behaviour performed by the tracking functions, along with summary plots for each frame. These functions require FFmpeg to be installed on your machine, which R calls via the system() function.

If you do not already have FFmpeg installed, these links provide excellent instructions:

Install FFmpeg on Mac Install FFmpeg on Windows

How to use pathtrackr

Using pathtrackr is very straightforward. Below are simple steps to process and analyse your animal movement videos.

Extract jpegs from video

splitVideo(filepath, fps, xpix, ypix)

Using the function splitVideo(), specify the:

  • file path of your video
  • the number of frames per second to extract. If fps is equal to the recording frame rate, all frames will be extracted. For fast moving animals, it is recommended to use a higher frame rate
  • size (in pixels) of the extracted jpegs. The tracking functions here do not require high resolution imagery, so we recommend using the default values for faster processing time. A value of -1 for ypix will maintain the aspect ratio.

The still frames will be saved in a new directory with the same name as the video file.

Track your animal’s movement

path.list = trackPath(dirpath, xarena, yarena, fps = 30, box = 1, jitter.damp = 0.9)

Next, use the trackPath() function and assign the results to a new object. Specify the newly created directory containing your extracted jpegs, the dimensions of your arena in mm, and the frame rate at which you extracted still frames from the video. By default this is set 30 fps, but you will need to adjust fps according to the frame rate at which you extracted stills from your video. The trackPathfunction will work if arena size and fps values are incorrectly specified, however, they are used in distance and velocity calculations later, so will return incorrect values. You can also specify the size of the tracking box. By default this is set to 1, and is a good place to start. If your animal is particularly fast moving, a larger box size may be more appropriate. Finally, if the animal’s path is very noisy (i.e. jittery) you may wish to increase the jitter damping. This is set to 0.9 by default. A value of 1 indicates no jitter damping, 0.5 indicates extreme damping and is unlikely to be useful. Too much jitter in the animal’s path will result in an overestimate of the path length. The default will usually produce good results unless your animal is particularly elongated.

After running the function and the still frames have been loaded, you will be prompted to define the boundaries of the arena. Click once on the top left corner of your arena, followed by clicking once on the bottom right corner of your arena, to define the opposing corners of the entire arena.

You will then be prompted to define the animal in the first frame of the video. Imagine a rectangle that defines the minimum region of your arena that contains your whole animal. Click once to define the top left corner of this rectangle, followed by clicking once to define the bottom right corner of this rectangle.

The function will now define a background reference image and subtract it from each frame, this may take some time depending on your video resolution and number of frames. The function will now begin tracking your animal across frames and return a list with a range of useful information, including a matrix of the xy co-ordinates of the animal in each frame, a matrix of movement data such as distances, velocities and bearings between each frame, and some summary data. Each of these elements can be retrieved by referencing the appropriate element in the returned list.



The plotPath() function will plot the animal’s path across the arena with density clouds representing the relative time spent in a given location. The only input required is the path.list object generated by trackPath().

The plotSummary() function returns a four-panelled plot summarising the the animal’s path, i.e. cumulative distance and velocity over time, and absolute and relative bearings across frames. The pathSummary() function will return summary data in a table format. The only input required for these functions is the path.list object generated by trackPath().


You can also produce a video output of the animal’s movement, along with summary plots, using the makeVideo() function. The function variables are the same as the main tracking function above, but instead of returning a list of data, an mp4 file will be saved in the same directory as the original video. Note: Tracking will take significantly longer than the normal trackPath function.

makeVideo(dirpath, xarena, yarena, fps = 30, box = 1, jitter.damp = 0.9)


If your animal is not being tracked properly, use the diagnosticPDF() function to view the tracking behaviour in each frame. Function variables are again the same as the main tracking function but in addition to returning a list of data, a pdf file will be saved with a page of plots for each frame. These can be used to visually compare the data with what is actually happening during tracking. Note:Tracking will take significantly longer than the normal trackPath function and a very large pdf file may be produced.

path.list = diagnosticPDF(dirpath, xarena, yarena, fps = 30, box = 1, jitter.damp = 0.9)

Planned features

Currently, pathtrackr is only able to track a single animal at a time. We plan to include the ability to track multiple animals simultaneously in the future, but are still tackling the issue of keeping track of individual ID when animals’ paths intersect.

List of functions

Video preparation

  • splitVideo


  • trackPath
  • manualPath
  • diagnosticPDF
  • makeVideo

Plotting and summary data

  • pathSummary
  • plotPath
  • plotSummary
  • countCells