Plant Ecology

, Volume 219, Issue 5, pp 577–589 | Cite as

Investigating detection success: lessons from trials using decoy rare plants

  • J. M. DennettEmail author
  • A. J. Gould
  • S. E. Macdonald
  • S. E. Nielsen


Imperfect detection leads to underestimates of species presence and decreases the reliability of survey data. Imperfect detection has not been examined in detail for boreal forest understory plants, despite widespread use of surveys for rare plants prior to development. We addressed this issue using detectability trials conducted in Alberta, Canada with decoy vascular plants. Volunteer observers searched in survey plots for species while unaware of their true presence or abundance. Our findings indicate that the detection of cryptic species is very low when abundance is low (0–35%) and plot size is large (< 50% in ≥ 100 m2). Plant density (individuals per unit area) was the most important determinant of detection probability, where more abundant species were detected more often and with less survey effort. When abundance was held constant, diffusely arranged species were twice as likely to be detected compared to those in clumps. Detection of cryptic species can be low even when individuals are flowering, and even morphologically distinct species can go unnoticed in small plots. We suggest that future decoy trials investigate search strategies that could improve detection and that field surveys for vascular plants address imperfect detection through careful consideration of plot size, characteristics of the target species, and survey effort, both in terms of time expenditure within an area and the number of observers employed.


Detection trial Detectability Understory vascular plant Rare plant Plant survey Plant monitoring 



Ethics approval was granted for both trials through the University of Alberta Research Ethics Office (PRO00059103 in 2015 and PRO00064852 in 2016). All Allium cernuum plants were generously donated in 2016 by the University of Alberta Botanic Garden. This project was supported by funding from the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Alberta Environmental Monitoring and Science Division, and the Alberta Conservation Association. We are grateful for the time and expertise contributed by our 29 volunteer observers.

Supplementary material

11258_2018_819_MOESM1_ESM.docx (3.3 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 3382 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Renewable ResourcesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  2. 2.Parks DivisionAlberta Environment and ParksEdmontonCanada

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