Using the negative binomial distribution to model overdispersion in ecological count data

Ecology. 2011 Jul;92(7):1414-21. doi: 10.1890/10-1831.1.


A Poisson process is a commonly used starting point for modeling stochastic variation of ecological count data around a theoretical expectation. However, data typically show more variation than implied by the Poisson distribution. Such overdispersion is often accounted for by using models with different assumptions about how the variance changes with the expectation. The choice of these assumptions can naturally have apparent consequences for statistical inference. We propose a parameterization of the negative binomial distribution, where two overdispersion parameters are introduced to allow for various quadratic mean-variance relationships, including the ones assumed in the most commonly used approaches. Using bird migration as an example, we present hypothetical scenarios on how overdispersion can arise due to sampling, flocking behavior or aggregation, environmental variability, or combinations of these factors. For all considered scenarios, mean-variance relationships can be appropriately described by the negative binomial distribution with two overdispersion parameters. To illustrate, we apply the model to empirical migration data with a high level of overdispersion, gaining clearly different model fits with different assumptions about mean-variance relationships. The proposed framework can be a useful approximation for modeling marginal distributions of independent count data in likelihood-based analyses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration
  • Animals
  • Binomial Distribution
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Demography
  • Ecosystem*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Seasons
  • Time Factors