Bias, precision, and accuracy of four measures of species richness

Jessica J. Hellmann, Gary W. Fowler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

171 Scopus citations


Species richness is a widely used surrogate for the more complex concept of biological diversity. Because species richness is often central to ecological study and the establishment of conservation priorities, the biases and merits of richness measurements demand evaluation. The jackknife and bootstrap estimators can be used to compensate for the underestimation associated with simple richness estimation (or the sum of species counted in a sample). Using data from five forest communities, we analyzed the simple measure of richness, the first- and second-order jackknife, and the bootstrap estimators with simulation and resampling methods to examine the effects of sample size on estimator performance. Performance parameters examined were systematic under- or overestimation (bias), ability to estimate consistently (precision), and ability to estimate true species richness (accuracy). For small sample sizes in all studied communities (less than ~25% of the total community), the least biased estimator was the second-order jackknife, followed by the first-order jackknife, the bootstrap, and the simple richness estimator. However, with increases in sample size, the second-order jackknife, followed by the first-order jackknife and the bootstrap, became positively biased. The simple richness estimator was the most precise estimator in all studied communities, but it yielded the largest underestimate of species richness at all sample sizes. The relative precision of the four estimators did not differ across communities, but the magnitude of estimator variance is dependent on the sampled community. Differences in accuracy among the estimators were not independent of community, and accuracy patterns were associated with community species diversity. The results of this study can assist policy makers, researchers, and managers in the selection of appropriate sample sizes and estimators for richness estimation and should facilitate the ongoing assessment of local, and ultimately global, biodiversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)824-834
Number of pages11
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Biological diversity
  • Bootstrap estimator
  • First- and second-order
  • Jackknife estimator
  • Monte Carlo simulation
  • Quadrat sampling
  • Resampling procedures
  • Sample size determination
  • Simple richness estimator
  • Species diversity
  • Species richness


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