The use of non-invasive genetic sampling to estimate population size in elusive or rare species is increasing. The data generated from this sampling differ from traditional mark–recapture data in that individuals may be captured multiple times within a session or there may only be a single sampling event. To accommodate this type of data, we develop a method, named capwire, based on a simple urn model containing individuals of two capture probabilities. The method is evaluated using simulations of an urn and of a more biologically realistic system where individuals occupy space, and display heterogeneous movement and DNA deposition patterns. We also analyse a small number of real data sets. The results indicate that when the data contain capture heterogeneity the method provides estimates with small bias and good coverage, along with high accuracy and precision. Performance is not as consistent when capture rates are homogeneous and when dealing with populations substantially larger than 100. For the few real data sets where N is approximately known, capwire's estimates are very good. We compare capwire's performance to commonly used rarefaction methods and to two heterogeneity estimators in program capture: Mh-Chao and Mh-jackknife. No method works best in all situations. While less precise, the Chao estimator is very robust. We also examine how large samples should be to achieve a given level of accuracy using capwire. We conclude that capwire provides an improved way to estimate N for some DNA-based data sets. Capwire is available at http://www.cnr.uidaho.edu/lecg/.
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