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Precision of systematic and random sampling in clustered populations: habitat patches and aggregating organisms

Richard McGarvey, Paul Burch, Janet M Matthews
Ecological Applications 2016, 26 (1): 233-48
27039522
Natural populations of plants and animals spatially cluster because (1) suitable habitat is patchy, and (2) within suitable habitat, individuals aggregate further into clusters of higher density. We compare the precision of random and systematic field sampling survey designs under these two processes of species clustering. Second, we evaluate the performance of 13 estimators for the variance of the sample mean from a systematic survey. Replicated simulated surveys, as counts from 100 transects, allocated either randomly or systematically within the study region, were used to estimate population density in six spatial point populations including habitat patches and Matérn circular clustered aggregations of organisms, together and in combination. The standard one-start aligned systematic survey design, a uniform 10 x 10 grid of transects, was much more precise. Variances of the 10 000 replicated systematic survey mean densities were one-third to one-fifth of those from randomly allocated transects, implying transect sample sizes giving equivalent precision by random survey would need to be three to five times larger. Organisms being restricted to patches of habitat was alone sufficient to yield this precision advantage for the systematic design. But this improved precision for systematic sampling in clustered populations is underestimated by standard variance estimators used to compute confidence intervals. True variance for the survey sample mean was computed from the variance of 10 000 simulated survey mean estimates. Testing 10 published and three newly proposed variance estimators, the two variance estimators (v) that corrected for inter-transect correlation (ν₈ and ν(W)) were the most accurate and also the most precise in clustered populations. These greatly outperformed the two "post-stratification" variance estimators (ν₂ and ν₃) that are now more commonly applied in systematic surveys. Similar variance estimator performance rankings were found with a second differently generated set of spatial point populations, ν₈ and ν(W) again being the best performers in the longer-range autocorrelated populations. However, no systematic variance estimators tested were free from bias. On balance, systematic designs bring more narrow confidence intervals in clustered populations, while random designs permit unbiased estimates of (often wider) confidence interval. The search continues for better estimators of sampling variance for the systematic survey mean.

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