Research Article: Simulation-based validation of spatial capture-recapture models: A case study using mountain lions

Date Published: April 19, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): J. Terrill Paterson, Kelly Proffitt, Ben Jimenez, Jay Rotella, Robert Garrott, Nicholas C. Manoukis.


Spatial capture-recapture (SCR) models have improved the ability to estimate densities of rare and elusive animals. However, SCR models have seldom been validated even as model formulations diversify and expand to incorporate new sampling methods and/or additional sources of information on model parameters. Information on the relationship between encounter probabilities, sources of additional information, and the reliability of density estimates, is rare but crucial to assessing reliability of SCR-based estimates. We used a simulation-based approach that incorporated prior empirical work to assess the accuracy and precision of density estimates from SCR models using spatially unstructured sampling. To assess the consequences of sparse data and potential sources of bias, we simulated data under six scenarios corresponding to three different levels of search effort and two levels of correlation between search effort and animal density. We then estimated density for each scenario using four models that included increasing amounts of information from harvested individuals and telemetry to evaluate the impact of additional sources of information. Model results were sensitive to the quantity of available information: density estimates based on low search effort were biased high and imprecise, whereas estimates based on high search effort were unbiased and precise. A correlation between search effort and animal density resulted in a positive bias in density estimates, though the bias decreased with increasingly informative datasets. Adding information from harvested individuals and telemetered individuals improved density estimates based on low and moderate effort but had negligible impact for datasets resulting from high effort. We demonstrated that density estimates from SCR models using spatially unstructured sampling are reliable when sufficient information is provided. Accurate density estimates can result if empirical-based simulations such as those presented here are used to develop study designs with appropriate amounts of effort and information sources.

Partial Text

Estimates of population size are of fundamental importance for understanding and managing populations of wild animals. In response to the imperfect detection of individual animals in field studies, ecologists have developed a diverse set of tools to account for heterogeneity in detection [1–4]. However, certain species such as large carnivores present persistent methodological and analytical obstacles to abundance estimation given their elusive nature, low densities, large ranges and potential for territoriality [5–7]. These ecological characteristics frequently result in low probabilities of capture and induce spatial heterogeneity in capture probabilities among individuals, both of which challenge traditional capture-recapture models [8–11]. Moreover, the large-scale movements of individuals relative to a fixed grid of trapping locations complicates the estimation of sampling area, which is required to convert an abundance estimate into a density estimate, a more useful metric for comparing populations across different geographic extents [8,12]. Yet, despite these challenges in estimating density, accurate estimates are required for wildlife management and conservation for the purposes of setting harvest quotas, the integrated management of predator and prey species, the conservation of threatened and endangered species, and to mitigate human-wildlife conflict.

Our primary goal was evaluating model performance in the worst-case scenario of low animal density (N = 200 individuals, 2 per 100km2) and we focused on these results below. However, we also compared and contrasted these results to model performance at a higher density of N = 400 individuals (4 per 100 km2).

Our results demonstrate that these models perform well in the presence of multiple sources of heterogeneity given sufficient information on animal movement. Model performance consistently improved as higher effort resulted in denser data sets and/or as additional information was included from harvested individuals or telemetered individuals. However, the improvement in model performance consistently diminished with increasing effort such that reliable estimates were generated both from medium levels of effort with information from harvest and telemetry as well as from high levels of effort and no additional information from harvest or telemetry. More informative data sets also moderated the consistent positive bias introduced when search effort was correlated with the density, a source of bias particular to unstructured spatial sampling. This approach to assessing model performance given variable effort and sources of additional information could be used to develop logistically feasible and cost-effective sampling scenarios that yield accurate and precise estimates of density.