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Refining estimates of availability bias to improve assessments of the conservation status of an endangered dolphin

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    PLOS ONE. 2018; 13(3): e0194213.
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Refining estimates of availability bias to improve assessments of the conservation status of an endangered dolphin
  • Description:
    Estimation of visibility bias is critical to accurately compute abundance of wild populations. The franciscana, Pontoporia blainvillei, is considered the most threatened small cetacean in the southwestern Atlantic Ocean. Aerial surveys are considered the most effective method to estimate abundance of this species, but many existing estimates have been considered unreliable because they lack proper estimation of correction factors for visibility bias. In this study, helicopter surveys were conducted to determine surfacing-diving intervals of franciscanas and to estimate availability for aerial platforms. Fifteen hours were flown and 101 groups of 1 to 7 franciscanas were monitored, resulting in a sample of 248 surface-dive cycles. The mean surfacing interval and diving interval times were 16.10 seconds (SE = 9.74) and 39.77 seconds (SE = 29.06), respectively. Availability was estimated at 0.39 (SE = 0.01), a value 16-46% greater than estimates computed from diving parameters obtained from boats or from land. Generalized mixed-effects models were used to investigate the influence of biological and environmental predictors on the proportion of time franciscana groups are visually available to be seen from an aerial platform. These models revealed that group size was the main factor influencing the proportion at surface. The use of negatively biased estimates of availability results in overestimation of abundance, leads to overly optimistic assessments of extinction probabilities and to potentially ineffective management actions. This study demonstrates that estimates of availability must be computed from suitable platforms to ensure proper conservation decisions are implemented to protect threatened species such as the franciscana.
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