Statistical design and analysis for plant cover studies with multiple sources of observation errors

Methods in Ecology and Evolution
By: , and 



  1. Effective wildlife habitat management and conservation requires understanding the factors influencing distribution and abundance of plant species. Field studies, however, have documented observation errors in visually estimated plant cover including measurements which differ from the true value (measurement error) and not observing a species that is present within a plot (detection error). Unlike the rapid expansion of occupancy and N-mixture models for analysing wildlife surveys, development of statistical models accounting for observation error in plants has not progressed quickly. Our work informs development of a monitoring protocol for managed wetlands within the National Wildlife Refuge System.
  2. Zero-augmented beta (ZAB) regression is the most suitable method for analysing areal plant cover recorded as a continuous proportion but assumes no observation errors. We present a model extension that explicitly includes the observation process thereby accounting for both measurement and detection errors. Using simulations, we compare our approach to a ZAB regression that ignores observation errors (naïve model) and an “ad hoc” approach using a composite of multiple observations per plot within the naïve model. We explore how sample size and within-season revisit design affect the ability to detect a change in mean plant cover between 2 years using our model.
  3. Explicitly modelling the observation process within our framework produced unbiased estimates and nominal coverage of model parameters. The naïve and “ad hoc” approaches resulted in underestimation of occurrence and overestimation of mean cover. The degree of bias was primarily driven by imperfect detection and its relationship with cover within a plot. Conversely, measurement error had minimal impacts on inferences. We found >30 plots with at least three within-season revisits achieved reasonable posterior probabilities for assessing change in mean plant cover.
  4. For rapid adoption and application, code for Bayesian estimation of our single-species ZAB with errors model is included. Practitioners utilizing our R-based simulation code can explore trade-offs among different survey efforts and parameter values, as we did, but tuned to their own investigation. Less abundant plant species of high ecological interest may warrant the additional cost of gathering multiple independent observations in order to guard against erroneous conclusions.
Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Statistical design and analysis for plant cover studies with multiple sources of observation errors
Series title Methods in Ecology and Evolution
DOI 10.1111/2041-210X.12825
Volume 8
Issue 12
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher British Ecological Society
Contributing office(s) Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
Description 10 p.
First page 1832
Last page 1841
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