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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2009

In the eye of the beholder: bias and stochastic variation in cover estimates

Bergstedt, Johan; Westerberg, Lars; Milberg, Per


Cover estimates by eye is a prevailing method to assess abundance. We examined cover estimates with regard to bias and random variation. Ten observers working with a national forest vegetation survey estimated sixteen 100 m(2)-plots, placed in two different vegetation types. These had similar species composition but were clearly distinguishable in the field. In species-wise analyses, observer bias varied greatly, with Dicranum spp., Vaccinium vitis-idaea and Vaccinium myrtillus having the largest bias. Experience had a surprisingly small impact on variation. Power analysis revealed only small differences between observers in the ability to distinguish the two vegetation types, and little value in averaging the assessments from two, three or four observers. Cover estimates did better than presence/absence data in separating the two vegetation types and multivariate analyses were more powerful than univariate ones.


Forest vegetation; Observer bias; Statistical power; Sweden; Visual assessment

Published in

Plant Ecology
2009, Volume: 204, number: 2, pages: 271–283

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Forest Science

    Publication identifier


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