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Estimation bias under model selection for distance sampling detection functions

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Many simulation studies have examined the properties of distance sampling estimators of wildlife population size. When assumptions hold, if distances are generated from a detection model and fitted using the same model, they are known to perform well. However, in practice, the true model is unknown. Therefore, standard practice includes model selection, typically using model comparison tools like Akaike Information Criterion. Here we examine the performance of standard distance sampling estimators under model selection. We compare line and point transect estimators with distances simulated from two detection functions, hazard-rate and exponential power series (EPS), over a range of sample sizes. To mimic the real-world context where the true model may not be part of the candidate set, EPS models were not included as candidates, except for the half-normal parameterization. We found median bias depended on sample size (being asymptotically unbiased) and on the form of the true detection function: negative bias (up to 15% for line transects and 30% for point transects) when the shoulder of maximum detectability was narrow, and positive bias (up to 10% for line transects and 15% for point transects) when it was wide. Generating unbiased simulations requires careful choice of detection function or very large datasets. Practitioners should collect data that result in detection functions with a shoulder similar to a half-normal and use the monotonicity constraint. Narrow-shouldered detection functions can be avoided through good field procedures and those with wide shoulder are unlikely to occur, due to heterogeneity in detectability.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-414
Number of pages16
JournalEnvironmental and Ecological Statistics
Issue number3
Early online date26 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017

    Research areas

  • Detection models, Line transect, Model selection, Point transect, Wildlife abundance estimation

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