VideoHacking: Automated Tracking and Quantification of Locomotor Behavior with Open Source Software and Off-the-Shelf Video Equipment

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Summer 2015


Differences in nervous system function can result in differences in behavioral output. Measurements of animal locomotion enable the quantification of these differences. Automated tracking of animal movement is less labor-intensive and bias-prone than direct observation, and allows for simultaneous analysis of multiple animals, high spatial and temporal resolution, and data collection over extended periods of time. Here, we present a new video-tracking system built on Python-based software that is free, open source, and cross-platform, and that can analyze video input from widely available video capture devices such as smartphone cameras and webcams. We validated this software through four tests on a variety of animal species, including larval and adult zebrafish (Danio rerio), Siberian dwarf hamsters (Phodopus sungorus), and wild birds. These tests highlight the capacity of our software for long-term data acquisition, parallel analysis of multiple animals, and application to animal species of different sizes and movement patterns. We applied the software to an analysis of the effects of ethanol on thigmotaxis (wallhugging) behavior on adult zebrafish, and found that acute ethanol treatment decreased thigmotaxis behaviors without affecting overall amounts of motion. The open source nature of our software enables flexibility, customization, and scalability in behavioral analyses. Moreover, our system presents a free alternative to commercial videotracking systems and is thus broadly applicable to a wide variety of educational settings and research programs.

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Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education

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