The survey of plant and animal populations is central to undertaking field ecology. However, detection is never perfect, so the absence of a species cannot be determined with complete certainty. Methods developed to account for imperfect detectability during surveys do not yet account for stochastic (random) variation in detectability over time or space. When each survey entails a fixed cost that is not spent searching (eg, time required to travel to the site), stochastic detection rates result in a trade-off between the number of surveys and the length of each survey when surveying a single site.
Alana Moore and colleagues at the University of Melbourne have developed a model that addresses this trade-off and use it to determine the number of surveys that: 1) maximizes the expected probability of detection over the entire survey period; and 2) is most likely to achieve a minimally-acceptable probability of detection. They illustrate the applicability of their approach using three practical examples (minimum survey effort protocols, number of frog surveys per season, and number of quadrats per site to detect a plant species) and then test their model’s predictions using data from experimental plant surveys.
They found that when maximizing the expected probability of detection, the optimal survey design is most sensitive to the coefficient of variation in the rate of detection and the ratio of the search budget to the travel cost. When maximizing the likelihood of achieving a particular probability of detection, the optimal survey design is most sensitive to the required probability of detection, the expected number of detections if the budget were spent only on searching, and the expected number of detections that are missed due to travel costs. They found that accounting for stochasticity in detection rates is likely to be particularly important for designing surveys when detection rates are low. Their model provides a framework to do this.
Moore AL, MA McCarthy, KM Parris & JL Moore (2015). The Optimal Number of Surveys when Detectability Varies. PLOS ONE 19(12). http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0115345