Choices of sampling method bias functional components estimation and ability to discriminate assembly mechanisms

Roger H. LEE*, Benoit GUÉNARD

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


1. The understanding and prediction of species distributions have been advanced by the development of community assembly theories and functional trait-based approaches. Coupled with null models, trait dispersion patterns are commonly used to gauge the relative importance of niche versus neutral-based processes on shaping local communities. However, asymmetrical trait dispersion patterns of identical communities may artificially arise as a result of sampling methods choice. This non-random filtering on traits is overlooked, and it may bias the estimation of functional components as well as the detection of underlying assembly mechanisms—especially for species-rich arthropod communities.

2. We sampled subtropical ground-dwelling ant communities using a paired treatment design comprising pitfall traps and Winkler extractors (Winklers), two commonly used sampling techniques for terrestrial arthropods, in 17 shrublands and 33 secondary forest 400 m2 plots in Hong Kong to determine the effect of sampling filters on functional composition (community means of six morphological traits) and functional diversity (range and variance of individual traits; size and filling properties of multidimensional trait space) using a null model approach for each habitat.

3. We found, as hypothesized, that sampling filters from different methods affected the trait composition and diversity of ant communities asymmetrically. In shrublands and forests, the trait compositions of communities sampled by pitfall traps were dominated by larger sized, slender-shaped and long-legged ants as compared to those sampled by Winklers. The latter method also underestimated the diversity of individual traits related to body size as well as the size and filling properties of multidimensional trait space.

4. Our results highlight that the usage of particular sampling methods without prior knowledge on their potential filtering effects on traits can affect the detection of assembly processes, and interpretation of functional proxies, such as body size. Additional care should be taken when comparing trait components obtained from studies using different sampling methods, so as to distinguish the sampling artefacts from actual ecological phenomena. Hence, it is important to consider the potential biases that different sampling methods may introduce to functional trait-based research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)867-878
Number of pages12
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

We thank Ying Luo, Yuet-Yin Ling, Roy Cheung and Curtis Hung for help with field work and Lily Ng and Maria Lo for laboratory assistance. We also thank Cong Liu and Toby Tsang for statistical advice and Mark Wong, Mac Pierce and two anonymous referees for providing constructive comments on an earlier draft. This work was supported by the University of Hong Kong.


  • functional diversity
  • niche-base assembly
  • sampling filter
  • terrestrial arthropod
  • trait dispersion


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