Designing occupancy surveys and interpreting non-detection when observations are imperfect



Aim  Conservation practitioners use biological surveys to ascertain whether or not a site is occupied by a particular species. Widely used statistical methods estimate the probability that a species will be detected in a survey of an occupied site. However, these estimates of detection probability are alone not sufficient to calculate the probability that a species is present given that it was not detected. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate methods for correctly calculating (1) the probability a species occupies a site given one or more non-detections, and (2) the number of sequential non-detections necessary to assert, with a pre-specified confidence, that a species is absent from a site.

Location  Occupancy data for a tree frog in eastern Australia serve to illustrate methods that may be applied anywhere species’ occupancy data are used and detection probabilities are < 1.

Methods  Building on Bayesian expressions for the probability that a site is occupied by a species when it is not detected, and the number of non-detections necessary to assert absence with a pre-specified confidence, we estimate occupancy probabilities across tree frog survey locations, drawing on information about where and when the species was detected during surveys.

Results  We show that the number of sequential non-detections necessary to assert that a species is absent increases nonlinearly with the prior probability of occupancy, the probability of detection if present, and the desired level of confidence about absence.

Main conclusions  If used more widely, the Bayesian analytical approaches illustrated here would improve collection and interpretation of biological survey data, providing a coherent way to incorporate detection probability estimates in the design of minimum survey requirements for monitoring, impact assessment and distribution modelling.