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Comparison of methods for estimating abundance of gopher tortoises

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Estimates of abundance of threatened and endangered species are crucial for monitoring population status and recovery progress. For most wildlife species, multiple abundance estimation methods are available and the choice of method should depend on cost and efficacy. We field-tested the cost and efficacy of line transect, total count, sample count, and double observer methods for estimating abundance of gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) burrows in two habitats that differed in vegetation density (sparse and dense) at the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station in north-central Florida. In the dense vegetation stratum, density of burrows estimated using the line transect method (8.58 ± 0.94 burrows ha−1) was lower than that obtained from the total count method (11.33 burrows ha−1). In the sparse vegetation stratum, estimated burrow density using the line transect method (11.32 ± 1.19 burrows ha−1) was closer to the burrow density obtained from the total count method (13.00 burrows ha−1). Density of burrows estimated using the double observer method was identical to that obtained from the total count method in dense vegetation stratum, but slightly greater than that obtained from the total count method in sparse vegetation stratum. Density of burrows estimated using the sample count method varied widely depending on the proportion of plots sampled. The cost of sampling as well as estimates of burrow density varied with habitat type. The line transect method was the least costly of the methods, and we were able to sample a larger effective area with the same effort. Using burrow cameras and patch occupancy modeling approach, we also estimated the probability of burrow occupancy by gopher tortoises (active: 0.50 ± 0.09; inactive: 0.04 ± 0.04), and used these values to estimate abundance of gopher tortoises. Using estimates of burrow abundance based on the line transect method, density of gopher tortoises was 2.75 ± 0.74 ha−1 in the sparse vegetation stratum. We recommend that gopher tortoise monitoring programs use rigorous methods for estimating burrow abundance (e.g., line transect methods) and the probability of burrow occupancy by gopher tortoises (e.g., patch occupancy modeling approach).

Affiliations: 1: Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, 110 Newins-Ziegler Hall, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA; 2: Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA


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