Are most samples of animals systematically biased? Consistent individual trait differences bias samples despite random sampling
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Sampling animals from the wild for study is something nearly every biologist has done, but despite our best efforts to obtain random samples of animals, ‘hidden’ trait biases may still exist. For example, consistent behavioral traits can affect trappability/catchability, independent of obvious factors such as size and gender, and these traits are often correlated with other repeatable physiological and/or life history traits. If so, systematic sampling bias may exist for any of these traits. The extent to which this is a problem, of course, depends on the magnitude of bias, which is presently unknown because the underlying trait distributions in populations are usually unknown, or unknowable. Indeed, our present knowledge about sampling bias comes from samples (not complete population censuses), which can possess bias to begin with. I had the unique opportunity to create naturalized populations of fish by seeding each of four small fishless lakes with equal densities of slow-, intermediate-, and fast-growing fish. Using sampling methods that are not size-selective, I observed that fast-growing fish were up to two-times more likely to be sampled than slower-growing fish. This indicates substantial and systematic bias with respect to an important life history trait (growth rate). If correlations between behavioral, physiological and life-history traits are as widespread as the literature suggests, then many animal samples may be systematically biased with respect to these traits (e.g., when collecting animals for laboratory use), and affect our inferences about population structure and abundance. I conclude with a discussion on ways to minimize sampling bias for particular physiological/behavioral/life-history types within animal populations.
KeywordsSelection Life history Behavior Harvest Fishing Personality Temperament
This study was supported by NSERC Canada and ARC Future Fellowship Australia. Thanks to C. Beckmann, J.A. Endler, B. Adriaenssens, J.A. Stamps, and two anonymous reviewers for valuable and constructive comments on earlier drafts.