On the reliability of N-mixture models for count data

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N-mixture models describe count data replicated in time and across sites in terms of abundance N and detectability p. They are popular because they allow inference about N while controlling for factors that influence p without the need for marking animals. Using a capture–recapture perspective, we show that the loss of information that results from not marking animals is critical, making reliable statistical modeling of N and p problematic using just count data. One cannot reliably fit a model in which the detection probabilities are distinct among repeat visits as this model is overspecified. This makes uncontrolled variation in p problematic. By counter example, we show that even if p is constant after adjusting for covariate effects (the “constant p” assumption) scientifically plausible alternative models in which N (or its expectation) is non-identifiable or does not even exist as a parameter, lead to data that are practically indistinguishable from data generated under an N-mixture model. This is particularly the case for sparse data as is commonly seen in applications. We conclude that under the constant p assumption reliable inference is only possible for relative abundance in the absence of questionable and/or untestable assumptions or with better quality data than seen in typical applications. Relative abundance models for counts can be readily fitted using Poisson regression in standard software such as R and are sufficiently flexible to allow controlling for p through the use covariates while simultaneously modeling variation in relative abundance. If users require estimates of absolute abundance, they should collect auxiliary data that help with estimation of p.




Barker, R. J., Schofield, M. R., Link, W. A., & Sauer, J. R. (2018). On the reliability of N-mixture models for count data. Biometrics, 74(1), 369–377. https://doi.org/10.1111/biom.12734

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