On Indices of Population Abundance

I am often surprised at ecological meetings by how many ecological studies rely on indices rather than direct measures. The most obvious cases involve population abundance. Two common criteria for declaring a species as endangered are that its population has declined more than 70% in the last ten years (or three generations) or that its population size is less than 2500 mature individuals. The criteria are many and every attempt is made to make them quantitative. But too often the methods used to estimate changes in population abundance are based on an index of population size, and all too rarely is the index calibrated against known abundances. If an index increases by 2-fold, e.g. from 20 to 40 counts, it is not at all clear that this means the population size has increased 2-fold. I think many ecologists begin their career thinking that indices are useful and reliable and end their career wondering if they are providing us with a correct picture of population changes.

The subject of indices has been discussed many times in ecology, particularly among applied ecologists. Anderson (2001) challenged wildlife ecologists to remember that indices include an unmeasured term, detectability: Anderson (2001, p. 1295) wrote:

“While common sense might suggest that one should estimate parameters of interest (e.g., population density or abundance), many investigators have settled for only a crude index value (e.g., “relative abundance”), usually a raw count. Conceptually, such an index value (c) is the product of the parameter of interest (N) and a detection or encounter probability (p): then c=pN

He noted that many indices used by ecologists make a large assumption that the probability of encounter is a constant over time and space and individual observers. Much of the discussion of detectability flowed from these early papers (Williams, Nichols & Conroy 2002; Southwell, Paxton & Borchers 2008). There is an interesting exchange over Anderson’s (2001) paper by Engeman (2003) followed by a retort by Anderson (2003) that ended with this blast at small mammal ecologists:

“Engeman (2003) notes that McKelvey and Pearson (2001) found that 98% of the small-mammal studies reviewed resulted in too little data for valid mark-recapture estimation. This finding, to me, reflects a substantial failure of survey design if these studies were conducted to estimate population size. ……..O’Connor (2000) should not wonder “why ecology lags behind biology” when investigators of small-mammal communities commonly (i.e., over 700 cases) achieve sample sizes <10. These are empirical methods; they cannot be expected to perform well without data.” (page 290)

Take that you small mammal trappers!

The warnings are clear about index data. In some cases they may be useful but they should never be used as population abundance estimates without careful validation. Even by small mammal trappers like me.

Anderson, D.R. (2001) The need to get the basics right in wildlife field studies. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 29, 1294-1297.

Anderson, D.R. (2003) Index values rarely constitute reliable information. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 31, 288-291.

Engeman, R.M. (2003) More on the need to get the basics right: population indices. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 31, 286-287.

McKelvey, K.S. & Pearson, D.E. (2001) Population estimation with sparse data: the role of estimators versus indices revisited. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 79, 1754-1765.

O’Connor, R.J. (2000) Why ecology lags behind biology. The Scientist, 14, 35.

Southwell, C., Paxton, C.G.M. & Borchers, D.L. (2008) Detectability of penguins in aerial surveys over the pack-ice off Antarctica. Wildlife Research, 35, 349-357.

Williams, B.K., Nichols, J.D. & Conroy, M.J. (2002) Analysis and Management of Animal Populations. Academic Press, New York.

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