Ecological networks have been hugely labour intensive to study using a combination of field observations and diet analysis from morphological examination of faeces and pellets.
Metabarcoding and metagenomics are powerful tools for diet analysis and can be applied either to faecal matter or to directly to the gut contents of collected invertebrates. In the latter case, no dissection is required – the invertebrates are simply blended into a ‘soup’ and the DNA of predator and prey are sequenced simultaneously. This allows complex networks to be characterised rapidly and cost-effectively.
Ecological networks are fundamental to the transmission of many important pathogens, and understanding the networks of hosts and vectors can help in the control and eradication of disease. For instance, sequencing collections of mosquitoes can simultaneously (1) detect pathogens, (2) identify the mosquito species associated with the pathogen, and (3) identify the vertebrate species the mosquitoes have fed on. We are experienced in carrying out this type of analysis.
Foodweb from metagenomic sequencing of predator (ladybird) gut contents. Paula et al., 2015