The 25 years up to 1999 have seen a tremendous growth in the application of statistical and modelling techniques to ecological problems. This expansion has been accelerated by the increasing availability of software, books and computing power. However, the suitability of some of these approaches to data analysis, in a relatively knowledge-poor discipline such as ecology, can be questioned on grounds of appropriateness and robustness. One reason for these concerns is that many ecological problems are at best poorly defined and most lack algorithmic solutions. Machine learning methods offer the potential for a different approach to these difficult problems. One definition of machine learning is that it is concerned with inducing knowledge from data, where the data could be patterns in a game of chess or patterns in the species composition of natural communities. Unfortunately ecologists have little experience of these relatively recent and novel approaches to understanding data. This is a problem that is made more complex because there is no simple taxonomy of machine learning methods and there are relatively few examples in the mainstream ecological literature to encourage exploration. This text is aimed at introducing machine learning methods to a readership of professional ecologists. All but one of the chapters have been written by ecologists and biologists who highlight the application of a particular method to a particular class of problem. Examples include the identification of species, optimal mate choice, predicting species distributions and modelling landscape features. A group of experienced machine learning workers, who have become interested in environmental problems, have written a chapter that demonstrates how machine learning methods can be used to discover equations that describe the dynamic behaviour of ecological systems. The final chapter reviews "real learning", offering the potential for greater dialogue between the biological and machine learning communities.
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