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1 October 2008 Evaluation of a Computer-assisted Photograph-matching System to Monitor Naturally Marked Harbor Seals at Tugidak Island, Alaska
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Monitoring the dynamics and status of populations of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) requires efficient methods for estimating population parameters from mark–resight data. We used a test set of photographs from 182 individuals identified by flipper tags, scars, or unique pelage markings to test whether individuals could be identified accurately by their ventral pelage markings; to document efficiency and misidentification error rate associated with a computer-assisted photograph-matching system; and to test for bias in mark–recapture survival estimates resulting from misidentification errors. Pelage patterns of seals that were not of dark-intermediate or intermediate color phase were unique and stable from birth until 6–8 years, and from year to year as adults. The computer-assisted system greatly improved efficiency of photograph matching: 93.3% of good photographs and 69.9% of all photographs ranked 1st, and 95.2% of good photographs ranked in the top 0.3% of the ordered list for visual checking. Additional visual matching error averaged <3.0% for good photographs, and overall misidentification error rate was low at 1.8%, due to the availability of multiple photographs for matching. Inclusion of poor-quality photographs reduced ranking success by ∼20% and increased additional visual matching error up to 20%. Bias in survival estimates was −7.0% for a misidentification rate of 8.8%, but was ≤1.1% for misidentification rates of <2.7%, achieved by restricting data to only good photos. Our study suggests that estimation of misidentification error rate, inclusion of only high-quality photographs, or use of models that account for misidentification error, are required to prevent bias in mark–recapture survival estimates when using data from natural-marking studies.

Kelly K. Hastings, Lex A. Hiby, and Robert J. Small "Evaluation of a Computer-assisted Photograph-matching System to Monitor Naturally Marked Harbor Seals at Tugidak Island, Alaska," Journal of Mammalogy 89(5), 1201-1211, (1 October 2008).
Accepted: 1 February 2008; Published: 1 October 2008

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