Are sweep net sampling and pitfall trapping compatible with molecular analysis of predation?
Molecular analysis of predation enables accurate and reliable elucidation of trophic linkages in complex food webs, but identifying the strength of such interactions can be subject to error. Currently two techniques dominate: monoclonal antibody-based enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Although the optimization and characterization of these systems ensures their sensitivity and specificity, predator collection protocols such as sweep-netting and vacuum sampling could overestimate feeding rates because of surface-level contamination, yielding positive reactivity or predation within the sampling device. Therefore, two sampling techniques (sweep-net sampling and hand collection) were compared within an alfalfa agroecosystem using a monoclonal antibody-based ELISA to test the hypothesis that cross-contamination is a source of error, i.e., significantly more predators (linyphiid spiders) would test positive for prey (Diptera) proteins. A concurrent study examining the viability of trapping predators into saline solution was also undertaken. No significant differences were found between the proportions of spiders screening positive for Diptera when collected by sweep-net versus hand collection, rejecting the hypothesis that sweep-netting predators for subsequent molecular gut content analysis overestimates predation frequency. ELISA was also capable of detecting prey proteins in predator guts from pitfall traps containing phosphate-buffered saline, indicating the suitability of this approach for the collection and analysis of epigeal predators. Although these results indicate that sweep netting and pitfall trapping into solution is appropriate in this predator-prey and ELISA analysis system, caution should be exercised with other interactions and PCR-based analysis. The likelihood for false-positive reactivity should therefore be considered on a case-by-case basis.