To calculate the number of samples required to estimate population density to a specified precision, a prior estimate of the sample variance is needed. Using data from the freshwater benthic literature, Downing (1979, 1980a) calculated a regression equation to predict sample variance from sampler size and population density. He used predicted sample variance to calculate the number of samples, of a range of sizes, required to estimate a range of population densities to a specified precision. He concludes that massive savings (1300 to 5000%) of total surface area sampled may be achieved by using sample units of small surface area. These conclusions are misleading. The data set used for the regression does not adequately cover the combination of a low-density population sampled by a device of small surface area. The benthic community of Belhaven Bay, East Lothian, Scotland was sampled in 1982 with a 0.1 m2 grab and a 0.0018 m2 corer, providing 112 sets of replicate data which were used to test the hypothesis that for a specified precision of the mean a considerable saving of total area sampled may be obtained by sampling with a device of small surface area. The benthos of Loch Creran, Argyll, Scotland was sampled with contiguous corer samples on four occasions in 1980 and 1981, providing 234 independent sets of replicate data. Contiguous samples were grouped to form several simulated series of samples of increasing surface area. A sampler of small surface area provided a saving of total area sampled of about 20%. Whether such a small saving is justifiable will depend on the extra field expenses incurred by taking many small samples. © 1989 Springer-Verlag.