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Missing data in sea turtle population monitoring: a Bayesian statistical framework accounting for incomplete sampling

Citation

Omeyer, Lucy et al. (2022), Missing data in sea turtle population monitoring: a Bayesian statistical framework accounting for incomplete sampling, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.prr4xgxp3

Abstract

Monitoring how populations respond to sustained conservation measures is essential to detect changes in their population status and determine the effectiveness of any interventions. In the case of sea turtles, their populations are difficult to assess because of their complicated life histories. Ground-derived clutch counts are most often used as an index of population size for sea turtles; however, data are often incomplete with varying sampling intensity within and among sites and seasons. To address these issues, we: (1) develop a Bayesian statistical modelling framework that can be used to account for sampling uncertainties in a robust probabilistic manner within a given site and season; and (2) apply this to a previously unpublished long-term sea turtle dataset (n = 17 years) collated for the Republic of the Congo, which hosts two sympatrically nesting species of sea turtle (leatherback turtle [Dermochelys coriacea] and olive ridley turtle [Lepidochelys olivacea]). The results of this analysis suggest that leatherback turtle nesting levels dropped initially and then settled into quasi-cyclical levels of interannual variability, with an average of 573 (mean, 95% prediction interval: 554–626) clutches laid annually between 2012 and 2017. In contrast, nesting abundance for olive ridley turtles has increased more recently, with an average of 1,087 (mean, 95% prediction interval: 1,057–1,153) clutches laid annually between 2012 and 2017. These findings highlight the regional and global importance of this rookery with the Republic of the Congo, hosting the second largest documented populations of olive ridley and the third largest for leatherback turtles in Central Africa; and the fourth largest non-arribada olive ridley rookery globally. Furthermore, whilst the results show that Congo’s single marine and coastal national park provides protection for over half of sea turtle clutches laid in the country, there is scope for further protection along the coast. Although large parts of the African coastline remain to be adequately monitored, the modelling approach used here will be invaluable to inform future status assessments for sea turtles given that most datasets are temporally and spatially fragmented. 

Methods

Sea turtle nest count data at 6 sites inside Conkouati-Douli National Park in the Republic of the Congo. Data obtained following beach patrols conducted at dawn to record the previous night's nesting activity, with field assistants surveying the entire nesting beach. At least two people were engaged in each patrol to ensure that the total width of beach available for nesting was surveyed for signs of visible activity - with one field assistant walking along the vegetation line and the other along the high tide line.

Funding