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A comparison of methods for estimating plant population size

Reisch, Christoph, Schmid, Christoph, Hartig, Florian
Biodiversity and conservation 2018 v.27 no.8 pp. 2021-2028
biodiversity, chalk grasslands, flowering, landscape ecology, monitoring, population size, surveys
Assessing local population size is one of the most common tasks in biodiversity monitoring. Population size estimates are not only important for conservation management and population threat assessment; they also enter many other analyses in landscape ecology and conservation. It is therefore concerning that methods for estimating plant population sizes are not standardized. We surveyed the literature and found that the most commonly used methods are counting either all or only flowering individuals on a site, as well as counting individuals in random plots or plots on transects. Sometimes, these methods are combined in the same study, without assurance that they produce comparable results. We therefore conducted a field study, in which we obtained population size estimates from all four methods for six different calcareous grassland species at 18 study sites. Our results demonstrate not only substantial differences between overall count rates generated by the different methods, but methods that surveyed the whole population also systematically yielded lower counts when species were less visible and when the area was larger, suggesting that these methods suffer from biases that could distort species and site comparisons. We conclude that estimates from different methods should not be mixed, and that plot or transect based surveys have likely smaller biases for large areas or poorly visible individuals, and are therefore preferable.