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Keywords:

  • breeding state assignment;
  • multistate capture–recapture models;
  • primiparity;
  • southern elephant seals;
  • state uncertainty;
  • vital rates

Abstract

Studying the demography of wild animals remains challenging as several of the critical parts of their life history may be difficult to observe in the field. In particular, determining with certainty when an individual breeds for the first time is not always obvious. This can be problematic because uncertainty about the transition from a prebreeder to a breeder state – recruitment – leads to uncertainty in vital rate estimates and in turn in population projection models. To avoid this issue, the common practice is to discard imperfect data from the analyses. However, this practice can generate a bias in vital rate estimates if uncertainty is related to a specific component of the population and reduces the sample size of the dataset and consequently the statistical power to detect effects of biological interest. Here, we compared the demographic parameters assessed from a standard multistate capture–recapture approach to the estimates obtained from the newly developed multi-event framework that specifically accounts for uncertainty in state assessment. Using a comprehensive longitudinal dataset on southern elephant seals, we demonstrated that the multi-event model enabled us to use all the data collected (6639 capture–recapture histories vs. 4179 with the multistate model) by accounting for uncertainty in breeding states, thereby increasing the precision and accuracy of the demographic parameter estimates. The multi-event model allowed us to incorporate imperfect data into demographic analyses. The gain in precision obtained has important implications in the conservation and management of species because limiting uncertainty around vital rates will permit predicting population viability with greater accuracy.