Skip to content
Switch branches/tags


Failed to load latest commit information.
Latest commit message
Commit time

Spatio-temporal Population Genetics Simulations in SLiM

This software is still under development! I have been making a good progress towards the first beta version, but the package still has some way to go before being production ready.

That said, if you would like to learn more, or if you're feeling brave and would like to test the package yourself, take a look at the tutorial. Note that getting it installed with all the geospatial dependencies can be a little bit tricky at this point (see the relevant section in the tutorial). If loading the package fails, check the error messages for missing software and install it using the package manager of your choice (on a Mac I recommend homebrew).

If you would like to stay updated with the developments:

  1. Click on the "Watch" button on the project's Github website.

  2. Follow me on Twitter. I might post some updates once the software is a bit more ready.


For installation instructions, please take a look at the installation section of the tutorial. Note that you might need to install some non-R software dependencies first. At the very least, you will need the most recent version of the SLiM software (version 3.6 or later).


Here is a small demonstration of what slendr is designed to do. We want to simulate spatio-temporal data representing the history of modern humans in Eurasia after the Out of Africa migration. This example will be quite brief, for more details, please see the tutorial vignette.

The package is designed to allow the building of complex spatio-temporal population genetics models in a single R script and then feeding such models to SLiM using a template SLiM script.

1. Setup the spatial context

First, we define the spatial context of the simulation. This will be the entire "world" which will be occupied by populations in our model. Note that in the world definition, we are explicitly stating which projected Coordinate Reference System (CRS) will be used to represent landscape features, distances in kilometers, etc.


map <- world(
  xrange = c(-15, 60), # min-max longitude
  yrange = c(20, 65),  # min-max latitude
  crs = "EPSG:3035"    # real projected CRS used internally

We can visualize the defined world map using the generic function plot provided by the package.


plot of chunk plot_world

Although in this example we use a real Earth landscape, the map can be completely abstract (either blank or with user-defined landscape features such as continents, islands, corridors and barriers).

2. Define broader geographic regions

In order to make building of population boundaries easier, we can define smaller regions on the map using the function region.

Note all coordinates of are specified in the geographic coordinate system (degrees longitude and latitude), but are internally represented in a projected CRS. This makes it easier to define spatial features simply by reading the coordinates from any regular map but makes simulations more accurate (distances and shapes are not distorted because we can use a CRS tailored to the region of the world we are working with).

africa <- region(
  "Africa", map,
  polygon = list(c(-18, 20), c(40, 20), c(30, 33),
                 c(20, 32), c(10, 35), c(-8, 35))
europe <- region(
  "Europe", map,
  polygon = list(
    c(-8, 35), c(-5, 36), c(10, 38), c(20, 35), c(25, 35),
    c(33, 45), c(20, 58), c(-5, 60), c(-15, 50)
anatolia <- region(
  "Anatolia", map,
  polygon = list(c(28, 35), c(40, 35), c(42, 40),
                 c(30, 43), c(27, 40), c(25, 38))

Again, we can use the generic plot function to visualize the objects:

plot(africa, europe, anatolia)

plot of chunk plot_regions

3. Define demographic history and population boundaries

The most important function in the package is population, which is used to define names, split times, sizes and spatial ranges of populations. Here, we specify times in years before the present, distances in kilometers. If this makes more sense for your models, times can also be given in a forward direction.

You will also note functions such as move or expand which are designed to take a slendr population object and change its spatial dynamics.

Note that in order to make this example executable on a normal local machine, we deliberately decreased the sizes of all populations.

afr <- population( # African ancestral population
  "AFR", parent = "ancestor", time = 52000, N = 3000,
  map = map, polygon = africa

ooa <- population( # population of the first migrants out of Africa
  "OOA", parent = afr, time = 51000, N = 500, remove = 25000,
  center = c(33, 30), radius = 400e3
) %>%
    trajectory = list(c(40, 30), c(50, 30), c(60, 40)),
    start = 50000, end = 40000, snapshots = 30

ehg <- population( # Eastern hunter-gatherers
  "EHG", parent = ooa, time = 28000, N = 1000, remove = 6000,
  polygon = list(
    c(26, 55), c(38, 53), c(48, 53), c(60, 53),
    c(60, 60), c(48, 63), c(38, 63), c(26, 60))

eur <- population( # European population
  name = "EUR", parent = ehg, time = 25000, N = 2000,
  polygon = europe

ana <- population( # Anatolian farmers
  name = "ANA", time = 28000, N = 3000, parent = ooa, remove = 4000,
  center = c(34, 38), radius = 500e3, polygon = anatolia
) %>%
  expand( # expand the range by 2.500 km
    by = 2500e3, start = 10000, end = 7000, snapshots = 10,
    polygon = join(europe, anatolia)

yam <- population( # Yamnaya steppe population
  name = "YAM", time = 7000, N = 500, parent = ehg, remove = 2500,
  polygon = list(c(26, 50), c(38, 49), c(48, 50),
                 c(48, 56), c(38, 59), c(26, 56))
) %>%
    trajectory = c(15, 50),
    start = 5000, end = 3000, snapshots = 8

We can use the function plot again, but we get a warning informing us that plotting complex model dynamics over time on a single map is not a good idea. Below, we show a better way to do this using a built-in interactive R shiny app.

plot(afr, ooa, ehg, eur, ana, yam)
#> Warning: Attempting to plot population ranges at multiple time points on
#> a single map. This is very hard to do in a satisfying way. Please
#> consider using the function `explore()` to plot the model dynamics
#> interactively.

plot of chunk plot_popmaps

4. Define geneflow events

By default, overlapping populations in SLiM do not mix. In order to schedule an geneflow event between two populations, we can use the function geneflow. If we want to specify multiple such events at once, we can collect them in a simple R list:

gf <- list(
  geneflow(from = ana, to = yam, rate = 0.5, start = 6500, end = 6400, overlap = FALSE),
  geneflow(from = ana, to = eur, rate = 0.5, start = 8000, end = 6000),
  geneflow(from = yam, to = eur, rate = 0.75, start = 4000, end = 3000)

5. Compile the model to a set of configuration files

model <- compile(
  populations = list(afr, ooa, ehg, eur, ana, yam), # populations defined above
  geneflow = gf, # geneflow events defined above
  generation_time = 30,
  resolution = 10e3, # resolution in meters per pixel
  competition_dist = 130e3, mate_dist = 100e3, # spatial interaction in SLiM
  offspring_dist = 70e3, # how far will offspring end up from their parents
  dir = "/tmp/example-model/"

Compiled model is kept as an R object which can be passed to different functions, most importantly the slim() function shown below. Evaluating it in the console prints its brief summary:

#> slendr 'model' object 
#> --------------------- 
#> populations: AFR, OOA, EHG, ANA, EUR, YAM 
#> geneflow events: [no geneflow]
#> generation time: 30 
#> time direction: backward 
#> number of spatial maps: 59 
#> resolution: 10000 distance unit per pixel
#> configuration files in: /private/tmp/example-model 
#> A detailed model specification can be found in `$splits`, `$geneflows`,
#> `$maps`, `$populations`, and other components of the model object (for
#> a complete list see `names(<model object>)`). You can also examine
#> the serialized configuration files in the model directory.

6. Visualize the model

The package provides an [R shiny]-based browser app explore() for checking the model dynamics interactively and visually. For more complex models, this is much better than static spatial plots such as the one we showed in step 2 above:


The function has two modes:

  1. Plotting spatial map dynamics:

  1. Displaying the demographic history graph (splits and geneflow events) embedded in the specified model:

7. Run the model in SLiM

Finally, we can execute the compiled model in SLiM. Here we run the simulation in a batch mode, but we could also run it in SLiMgui by setting method = "gui".

The slim function generates a complete SLiM script tailored to run the spatial model we defined above. This saves you, the user, a tremendous amount of time.

  seq_length = 1, recomb_rate = 0, # simulate only a single locus
  save_locations = TRUE, # save the location of everyone who ever lived
  method = "batch" # change to "gui" to execute the model in SLiMgui

As specified, the SLiM run will save ancestry proportions in each population over time as well as the location of every individual who ever lived.

8. Re-capitulate the SLiM run as an individual-based animation

We can use the saved locations of every individual that lived throughout the course of the simulation to generate a simple GIF animation:

animate(model, steps = 100, width = 500, height = 300)

plot of chunk plot_gif

Note that it is possible to simulate population splits and geneflows both by "physically" moving individuals of a population from one destination to the next across space but it is also possible to do this more abstractly (in instantaneous "jumps") in situations where this is more appropriate or where simulating accurate movement is not necessary.

In this case, the only population movement we explicitly encoded was the split and migration of the OOA population from Africans and the expansion of Anatolians. All the other populations simply popped up on a map, without explicitly migrating there. Similarly, the geneflow from Anatolians into the Yamnaya specified in step 4. did not require a spatial overlap between the two populations, but the other two geneflow events did.


Spatio-temporal Population Genetics Simulations with SLiM





No releases published