Virtually all empirical ecological interaction networks to some extent suffer from undersampling. However, how limitations imposed by sampling incompleteness affect our understanding of ecological networks is still poorly explored, which may hinder further advances in the field. Here, we use a plant-hummingbird network with unprecedented sampling effort (2716 h of focal observations) from the Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil, to investigate how sampling effort affects the description of network structure (i.e. widely used network metrics) and the relative importance of distinct processes (i.e. species abundances vs. traits) in determining the frequency of pairwise interactions. By dividing the network into time slices representing a gradient of sampling effort, we show that quantitative metrics, such as interaction evenness, specialization (H2 '), weighted nestedness (wNODF) and modularity (Q; QuanBiMo algorithm) were less biased by sampling incompleteness than binary metrics. Furthermore, the significance of some network metrics changed along the sampling effort gradient. Nevertheless, the higher importance of traits in structuring the network was apparent even with small sampling effort. Our results (i) warn against using very poorly sampled networks as this may bias our understanding of networks, both their patterns and structuring processes, (ii) encourage the use of quantitative metrics little influenced by sampling when performing spatio-temporal comparisons and (iii) indicate that in networks strongly constrained by species traits, such as plant-hummingbird networks, even small sampling is sufficient to detect their relative importance for the frequencies of interactions. Finally, we argue that similar effects of sampling are expected for other highly specialized subnetworks.
Keywords: NODF; QuanBiMo; connectance; forbidden links; modularity; nestedness; network metrics; neutrality; plant-pollinator networks; specialization.
© 2015 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology © 2015 British Ecological Society.