Field testing line transect estimation of desert tortoise abundance

DR Anderson, KP Burnham, BC Lubow, Len Thomas, PS Corn, PA Medica, RW Marlow

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74 Citations (Scopus)


We examine the degree to which field observers can meet the assumptions underlying line transect sampling to monitor populations of desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii). We present the results of 2 field trials using artificial tortoise models in 3 size classes. The trials were conducted on 2 occasions on an area south of Las Vegas, Nevada, where the density of the test population was known. In the first trials, conducted largely by experienced biologists who had been involved in tortoise surveys for many years, the density of adult tortoise models was well estimated (-3.9% bias),while the bias was higher (-20%) for subadult tortoise models. The bias for combined data was -12.0%. The bias was largely attributed to the failure to detect all tortoise models on or near the that first centerline. The second trials were conducted with a group of largely inexperienced student volunteers and used somewhat different searching methods, and the results were similar to the first trials. Estimated combined density of subadult and adult tortoise models had a negative bias (-7.3%), again attributable to failure to detect some models on or near the centerline. Experience in desert tortoise biology, either comparing the first and second trials or in the second trial with 2 experienced biologists versus 16 novices, did not have an apparent effect on the quality of the data or the accuracy of the estimates. Observer training, specific to line transect sampling, and field testing are important components of a reliable survey. Line transect sampling represents a viable method for large-scale monitoring of populations of desert tortoise; however, field protocol must be improved to assure the key assumptions are met.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)583-597
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2001


  • density estimation
  • desert tortoise
  • distance sampling
  • field trials
  • line transect sampling
  • monitoring
  • observer performance


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