Effects of Social Organization, Trap Arrangement and Density, Sampling Scale, and Population Density on Bias in Population Size Estimation Using Some Common Mark-Recapture Estimators
Mark-recapture estimators are commonly used for population size estimation, and typically yield unbiased estimates for most solitary species with low to moderate home range sizes. However, these methods assume independence of captures among individuals, an assumption that is clearly violated in social species that show fission-fusion dynamics, such as the Asian elephant. In the specific case of Asian elephants, doubts have been raised about the accuracy of population size estimates. More importantly, the potential problem for the use of mark-recapture methods posed by social organization in general has not been systematically addressed. We developed an individual-based simulation framework to systematically examine the potential effects of type of social organization, as well as other factors such as trap density and arrangement, spatial scale of sampling, and population density, on bias in population sizes estimated by POPAN, Robust Design, and Robust Design with detection heterogeneity. In the present study, we ran simulations with biological, demographic and ecological parameters relevant to Asian elephant populations, but the simulation framework is easily extended to address questions relevant to other social species. We collected capture history data from the simulations, and used those data to test for bias in population size estimation. Social organization significantly affected bias in most analyses, but the effect sizes were variable, depending on other factors. Social organization tended to introduce large bias when trap arrangement was uniform and sampling effort was low. POPAN clearly outperformed the two Robust Design models we tested, yielding close to zero bias if traps were arranged at random in the study area, and when population density and trap density were not too low. Social organization did not have a major effect on bias for these parameter combinations at which POPAN gave more or less unbiased population size estimates. Therefore, the effect of social organization on bias in population estimation could be removed by using POPAN with specific parameter combinations, to obtain population size estimates in a social species.
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