The importance of incorporating imperfect detection in biodiversity assessments: a case study of small mammals in an Australian region


Dr Lesley Gibson, Department of Environment and Conservation, Science Division, PO Box 51, Wanneroo, Western Australia 6946, Australia.


Aim  Assessments of biodiversity are an essential requirement of conservation management planning. Species distributional modelling is a popular approach to quantifying biodiversity whereby occurrence data are related to environmental covariates. An important confounding factor that is often overlooked in the development of such models is uncertainty due to imperfect detection. Here, I demonstrate how an analytical approach that accounts for the bias due to imperfect detection can be applied retrospectively to an existing biodiversity survey data set to produce more realistic estimates of species distributions and unbiased covariate relationships.

Location  Pilbara biogeographic region, Australia.

Methods  As a component of the Pilbara survey, presence/absence (i.e. undetected) data on small ground-dwelling mammals were collected. I applied a multiseason occupancy modelling approach to six of the most common species encountered during this survey. Detection and occupancy rates, as well as extinction and colonization probabilities, were determined, and the influence of covariates on these parameters was examined using the multi-model inference approach.

Results  Detection probabilities for all six species were considerably lower than 1.0 and varied across time and species. Naïve estimates of occupancy underestimated occupancy rates corrected for species detectability by up to 45%. Seasonal variation in occupancy status was attributed to changes in detection for two of the focal species, while reproductive events explained variation in occupancy in three others. Covariates describing the substrate strongly influenced site occupancy for most of the species modelled. A comparison of the occupancy model with a generalized linear model, assuming perfect detection, showed that the effects of the covariates were underestimated in the latter model.

Main conclusions  The application of the multiseason occupancy modelling approach to the Pilbara mammal data set demonstrated a powerful framework for examining changes in site occupancy, as well as local colonization and extinction rates of species which are not confounded by variable species detection rates.