Census error and the detection of density dependence

Robert P. Freckleton, Andrew R. Watkinson, Rhys E. Green, William J. Sutherland

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233 Citations (Scopus)


1. Studies aiming to identify the prevalence and nature of density dependence in ecological populations have often used statistical analysis of ecological time-series of population counts. Such time-series are also being used increasingly to parameterize models that may be used in population management.

2. If time-series contain measurement errors, tests that rely on detecting a negative relationship between log population change and population size are biased and prone to spuriously detecting density dependence (Type I error). This is because the measurement error in density for a given year appears in the corresponding change in population density, with equal magnitude but opposite sign.

3. This effect introduces bias that may invalidate comparisons of ecological data with density-independent time-series. Unless census error can be accounted for, time-series may appear to show strongly density-dependent dynamics, even though the density-dependent signal may in reality be weak or absent.

4. We distinguish two forms of census error, both of which have serious consequences for detecting density dependence.

5. First, estimates of population density are based rarely on exact counts, but on samples. Hence there exists sampling error, with the level of error depending on the method employed and the number of replicates on which the population estimate is based.

6. Secondly, the group of organisms measured is often not a truly self-contained population, but part of a wider ecological population, defined in terms of location or behaviour. Consequently, the subpopulation studied may effectively be a sample of the population and spurious density dependence may be detected in the dynamics of a single subpopulation. In this case, density dependence is detected erroneously, even if numbers within the subpopulation are censused without sampling error.

7. In order to illustrate how process variation and measurement error may be distinguished we review data sets (counts of numbers of birds by single observers) for which both census error and long-term variance in population density can be estimated.

8. Tests for density dependence need to obviate the problem that measured population sizes are typically estimates rather than exact counts. It is possible that in some cases it may be possible to test for density dependence in the presence of unknown levels of census error, for example by uncovering nonlinearities in the density response. However, it seems likely that these may lack power compared with analyses that are able to explicitly include census error and we review some recently developed methods.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)837-851
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2006

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