New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2018) 42(2): 179- 191

Calibrating brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) occupancy and abundance index estimates from leg-hold traps, wax tags and chew cards in the Department of Conservation’s Biodiversity and Monitoring Reporting System

Research Article
David M. Forsyth 1*
Mike Perry 2
Paul Moloney 3
Meredith McKay 4
Andrew M. Gormley 5
Bruce Warburton 5
Peter Sweetapple 5
Robyn Dewhurst 2
  1. Vertebrate Pest Research Unit, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, 1447 Forest Road, Orange, NSW 2800, Australia
  2. Department of Conservation, 28 North Street, Palmerston North 4410, New Zealand
  3. Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, 123 Brown Street, Heidelberg, Victoria 3084, Australia
  4. Science and Policy Group, Department of Conservation, 161 Cashel Street, Christchurch 8011, New Zealand
  5. Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Gerald Street, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Abstract: The Department of Conservation has implemented a Biodiversity and Monitoring Reporting System (BMRS) that estimates occupancy rates and relative abundances of introduced brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) at a representative sample of sites on public conservation land. Leg-hold traps have been used to monitor possums in the BMRS, but wax tags and chew cards have logistical and financial advantages over traps. If possum occupancy rate and/or abundance index estimates differ depending on which of the three methods are used, then correction of the estimates would be required for valid comparisons. We sampled possum occupancy rates and relative abundances using leg-hold traps, wax tags and chew cards in the BMRS sampling design at each of 54 forest and 54 non-forest sites. Possum occupancy rates estimated using each of the three detection methods were similar and hence do not require correction. Median possum abundance index values estimated from traps were lower than those estimated from wax tags and chew cards in forest, but were similar to those from wax tags in non-forest. Calibration is therefore required if possum abundance index values from either chew cards or wax tags are to be validly compared with trap catch abundance index values. We used a zeroinflated negative binomial (ZINB) model to calibrate the chew card and wax tag abundance indices with the trap catch abundance index. The ZINB model allowed us to account for structural zeros (i.e. possums were not present and therefore cannot be detected) and non-structural zeros (i.e. possums were present, but not detected by a particular method). The relationship between possum abundance index estimates from chew cards and leg-hold traps was better calibrated than that between wax tags and leg-hold traps, with the latter particularly poor in non-forest habitat. We therefore conclude that chew cards, rather than wax tags, should replace leg-hold traps for monitoring possum occupancy rates and relative abundances in the BMRS. Our ZINB model can be used to correct chew card abundance index values for valid comparison with previous trap catch abundance index values estimated using the BMRS design.