Date of this Version
Ecological Applications, 21(7), 2011, pp. 2487–2497
Estimating the age of individuals in wild populations can be of fundamental importance for answering ecological questions, modeling population demographics, and managing exploited or threatened species. Significant effort has been devoted to determining age through the use of growth annuli, secondary physical characteristics related to age, and growth models. Many species, however, either do not exhibit physical characteristics useful for independent age validation or are too rare to justify sacrificing a large number of individuals to establish the relationship between size and age. Length-at-age models are well represented in the fisheries and other wildlife management literature. Many of these models overlook variation in growth rates of individuals and consider growth parameters as population parameters. More recent models have taken advantage of hierarchical structuring of parameters and Bayesian inference methods to allow for variation among individuals as functions of environmental covariates or individual-specific random effects. Here, we describe hierarchical models in which growth curves vary as individual-specific stochastic processes, and we show how these models can be fit using capture–recapture data for animals of unknown age along with data for animals of known age. We combine these independent data sources in a Bayesian analysis, distinguishing natural variation (among and within individuals) from measurement error. We illustrate using data for African dwarf crocodiles, comparing von Bertalanffy and logistic growth models. The analysis provides the means of predicting crocodile age, given a single measurement of head length. The von Bertalanffy was much better supported than the logistic growth model and predicted that dwarf crocodiles grow from 19.4 cm total length at birth to 32.9 cm in the first year and 45.3 cm by the end of their second year. Based on the minimum size of females observed with hatchlings, reproductive maturity was estimated to be at nine years. These size benchmarks are believed to represent thresholds for important demographic parameters; improved estimates of age, therefore, will increase the precision of population projection models. The modeling approach that we present can be applied to other species and offers significant advantages when multiple sources of data are available and traditional aging techniques are not practical.