Research Highlight: Christian, M., Oosthuizen, W. C., Bester, M. N., & de Bruyn, P. N. (2024). Robustly estimating the demographic contribution of immigration: Simulation, sensitivity analysis and seals. Journal of Animal Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.14053. Immigration can have profound consequences for local population dynamics and demography, but collecting data to accurately quantifying it is challenging. The recent rise of integrated population models (IPMs) offers an alternative by making it possible to estimate immigration without the need for explicit data, and to quantify its contribution to population dynamics through transient Life Table Response Experiments (tLTREs). Simulation studies have, however, highlighted that this approach can be prone to bias and overestimation. In their new study, Christian etal. address one of the root causes of this issue by improving the estimation of time variation in vital rates and immigration using Gaussian processes in lieu of traditionally used temporal random effects. They demonstrate that IPM-tLTRE frameworks with Gaussian processes produce more accurate and less biased estimates of immigration and its contribution to population dynamics and illustrate the applicability of this approach using a long-term data set on elephant seals (Mirounga leonida). Results are validated with a simulation study and suggest that immigration of breeding females has been central for population recovery of elephant seals despite the species' high female site fidelity. Christian etal. thus present new insights into population regulation of long-lived marine mammals and highlight the potential for using Gaussian process priors in IPMs. They also illustrate a suite of 'best practices' for state-of-the-art IPM-tLTRE analyses and provide an inspirational example for the kind of ecological modelling workflow that can be invaluable not just as a starting point for fellow ecologists picking up or improving their own IPM-tLTRE analyses, but also for teaching and in contexts where model estimates are used for informing management and conservation decision-making.

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