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N-Mixture Models for Estimating Population Size from Spatially Replicated Counts



Summary.  Spatial replication is a common theme in count surveys of animals. Such surveys often generate sparse count data from which it is difficult to estimate population size while formally accounting for detection probability. In this article, I describe a class of models (N-mixture models) which allow for estimation of population size from such data. The key idea is to view site-specific population sizes, N, as independent random variables distributed according to some mixing distribution (e.g., Poisson). Prior parameters are estimated from the marginal likelihood of the data, having integrated over the prior distribution for N. Carroll and Lombard (1985, Journal of American Statistical Association80, 423–426) proposed a class of estimators based on mixing over a prior distribution for detection probability. Their estimator can be applied in limited settings, but is sensitive to prior parameter values that are fixed a priori. Spatial replication provides additional information regarding the parameters of the prior distribution on N that is exploited by the N-mixture models and which leads to reasonable estimates of abundance from sparse data. A simulation study demonstrates superior operating characteristics (bias, confidence interval coverage) of the N-mixture estimator compared to the Caroll and Lombard estimator. Both estimators are applied to point count data on six species of birds illustrating the sensitivity to choice of prior on p and substantially different estimates of abundance as a consequence.