PLoS One 2019 19;14(4):e0215458. Epub 2019 Apr 19.
Department of Ecology, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana, United States of America.
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.