Is relative abundance a good indicator of population size? evidence from fragmented populations of a specialist butterfly (Lepidoptera : Lycaenidae)

Neil Collier, Flinders University; Charles Darwin University
Duncan A. Mackay, Flinders University
Kirsten Benkendorff, Flinders University


A common task for conservation biologists and ecologists is to establish how many individuals there are in a population, usually within a defined area of habitat. Estimates of both absolute and relative population sizes are widely used in many aspects of population conservation and management. Mark–recapture studies are appropriate for estimating the absolute population sizes of a wide range of animals, in both open and closed populations, while relative abundances can be estimated from a variety of survey methods. Relative abundances are often used in a comparative way to compare both population size and fluctuations in abundance. Here, we used transect counts and capture–recapture studies to estimate the relative abundances and population sizes of a specialist butterfly, Theclinesthes albocincta (Lycaenidae) in three habitat fragments, over two consecutive years. The sizes of the three populations differed significantly between sites and were highly variable between years. One population was extremely small and is likely to become locally extinct. We found that estimates of relative abundance were highly correlated with estimates of population size (r 2 = 0.88, P = 0.017) derived from the open population models. The combination of transect counts and capture–recapture studies used in this study appears to be a very informative tool for the conservation and management of this butterfly species and could be extended to other insects.