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Estimating density of mountain hares using distance sampling: a comparison of daylight visual surveys, night-time thermal imaging and camera traps

Bedson, Carlos PE and Thomas, Lowri and Wheeler, Philip M and Reid, Neil and Harris, W Edwin and Lloyd, Huw and Mallon, David and Preziosi, Richard (2021) Estimating density of mountain hares using distance sampling: a comparison of daylight visual surveys, night-time thermal imaging and camera traps. Wildlife Biology, 2021 (3). ISSN 0909-6396

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Abstract

Surveying cryptic, nocturnal animals is logistically challenging. Consequently, density estimates may be imprecise and uncertain. Survey innovations mitigate ecological and observational difficulties contributing to estimation variance. Thus, comparisons of survey techniques are critical to evaluate estimates of abundance. We simultaneously compared three methods for observing mountain hare Lepus timidus using Distance sampling to estimate abundance. Daylight visual surveys achieved 41 detections, estimating density at 14.3 hares km−2 (95%CI 6.3–32.5) resulting in the lowest estimate and widest confidence interval. Night-time thermal imaging achieved 206 detections, estimating density at 12.1 hares km−2 (95%CI 7.6–19.4). Thermal imaging captured more observations at furthest distances, and detected larger group sizes. Camera traps achieved 3705 night-time detections, estimating density at 22.6 hares km−2 (95%CI 17.1–29.9). Between the methods, detections were spatially correlated, although the estimates of density varied. Our results suggest that daylight visual surveys tended to underestimate density, failing to reflect nocturnal activity. Thermal imaging captured nocturnal activity, providing a higher detection rate, but required fine weather. Camera traps captured nocturnal activity, and operated 24/7 throughout harsh weather, but needed careful consideration of empirical assumptions. We discuss the merits and limitations of each method with respect to the estimation of population density in the field.

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