Statistical methods for species richness estimation using count data from multiple sampling units

Date

2012-04-23

Authors

Argyle, Angus Gordon

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Abstract

The planet is experiencing a dramatic loss of species. The majority of species are unknown to science, and it is usually infeasible to conduct a census of a region to acquire a complete inventory of all life forms. Therefore, it is important to estimate and conduct statistical inference on the total number of species in a region based on samples obtained from field observations. Such estimates may suggest the number of species new to science and at potential risk of extinction. In this thesis, we develop novel methodology to conduct statistical inference, based on abundance-based data collected from multiple sampling locations, on the number of species within a taxonomic group residing in a region. The primary contribution of this work is the formulation of novel statistical methodology for analysis in this setting, where abundances of species are recorded at multiple sampling units across a region. This particular area has received relatively little attention in the literature. In the first chapter, the problem of estimating the number of species is formulated in a broad context, one that occurs in several seemingly unrelated fields of study. Estimators are commonly developed from statistical sampling models. Depending on the organisms or objects under study, different sampling techniques are used, and consequently, a variety of statistical models have been developed for this problem. A review of existing estimation methods, categorized by the associated sampling model, is presented in the second chapter. The third chapter develops a new negative binomial mixture model. The negative binomial model is employed to account for the common tendency of individuals of a particular species to occur in clusters. An exponential mixing distribution permits inference on the number of species that exist in the region, but were in fact absent from the sampling units. Adopting a classical approach for statistical inference, we develop the maximum likelihood estimator, and a corresponding profile-log-likelihood interval estimate of species richness. In addition, a Gaussian-based confidence interval based on large-sample theory is presented. The fourth chapter further extends the hierarchical model developed in Chapter 3 into a Bayesian framework. The motivation for the Bayesian paradigm is explained, and a hierarchical model based on random effects and discrete latent variables is presented. Computing the posterior distribution in this case is not straight-forward. A data augmentation technique that indirectly places priors on species richness is employed to compute the model using a Metropolis-Hastings algorithm. The fifth chapter examines the performance of our new methodology. Simulation studies are used to examine the mean-squared error of our proposed estimators. Comparisons to several commonly-used non-parametric estimators are made. Several conclusions emerge, and settings where our approaches can yield superior performance are clarified. In the sixth chapter, we present a case study. The methodology is applied to a real data set of oribatid mites (a taxonomic order of micro-arthropods) collected from multiple sites in a tropical rainforest in Panama. We adjust our statistical sampling models to account for the varying masses of material sampled from the sites. The resulting estimates of species richness for the oribatid mites are useful, and contribute to a wider investigation, currently underway, examining the species richness of all arthropods in the rainforest. Our approaches are the only existing methods that can make full use of the abundance-based data from multiple sampling units located in a single region. The seventh and final chapter concludes the thesis with a discussion of key considerations related to implementation and modeling assumptions, and describes potential avenues for further investigation.

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Keywords

species richness, negative binomial mixture, finite mixture model, data augmentation, hierarchical model

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