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New article – Reliability of animal counts and implications for the interpretation of trends

This article was published in Ecology and Evolution. It is part of David Vallecillo [1]‘s PhD.

You can access on the Tour du Valat web documentary portal. [2]


  1. Population time series analysis is an integral part of conservation biology in the current context of global changes. To quantify changes in population size, wildlife counts only provide estimates because of various sources of error. When unaccounted for, such errors can obscure important ecological patterns and reduce confidence in the derived trend. In the case of highly gregarious species, which are common in the animal kingdom, the estimation of group size is an important potential bias, which is characterized by high variance among observers. In this context, it is crucial to quantify the impact of observer changes, inherent to population monitoring, on i) the minimum length of population time series required to detect significant trends and ii) the accuracy (bias and precision) of the trend estimate.
  2. We acquired group size estimation error data by an experimental protocol where 24 experienced observers conducted counting simulation tests on group sizes. We used this empirical data to simulate observations over 25 years of a declining population distributed over 100 sites. Five scenarios of changes in observer identity over time and sites were tested for each of three simulated trends (true population size evolving according to deterministic models parameterized with declines of 1.1%, 3.9% or 7.4% per year that justify respectively a “declining,” “vulnerable” or “endangered” population under IUCN criteria).
  3. We found that under realistic field conditions observers detected the accurate value of the population trend in only 1.3% of the cases. Our results also show that trend estimates are similar if many observers are spatially distributed among the different sites, or if one single observer counts all sites. However, successive changes in observer identity over time lead to a clear decrease in the ability to reliably estimate a given population trend, and an increase in the number of years of monitoring required to adequately detect the trend.
  4. Minimizing temporal changes of observers improve the quality of count data and help taking appropriate management decisions and setting conservation priorities. The same occurs when increasing the number of observers spread over 100.

Bibliographical reference: Vallecillo D., Gauthier‐Clerc M., Guillemain M., Vittecoq M., Vandewalle P., Roche B., Champagnon J. 2021. Reliability of animal counts and implications for the interpretation of trends. Ecology and Evolution Online:. DOI : http://dx.doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.7191 [3]