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A Cubic Foot
February 2, 2010 10:57 AM   Subscribe

How much life could you find in one cubic foot? With a 12-inch green metal-framed cube, photographer David Liittschwager (of the Endangered Species Project) surveyed biodiversity in land, water, tropical and temperate environments around the globe for National Geographic. At each locale he set down the cube and started watching, counting, and photographing with the help of his assistant and many biologists. The goal: to represent the creatures that lived in or moved through that space. The team then sorted through their habitat cubes and tallied every inhabitant, down to a size of about a millimeter.

Accompanying article is by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson. (Previously on MeFi)

More from Mr. Liittschwager can be found here and here. (For the last link, click "View 2008 Interviews" then click on the lowermost right image to see some of his photos and watch an (autoplaying) embedded video.)
posted by zarq (25 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post.
posted by swift at 11:05 AM on February 2, 2010


Thanks for a great post, but I get sort of antsy on projects that have Wilson's name attached to them.
posted by effluvia at 11:10 AM on February 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


effluvia; could you explain why? I've never heard of him.
posted by odinsdream at 11:13 AM on February 2, 2010


effluvia; could you explain why? I've never heard of him.

It's a pun (I hope). Wilson studies ants.
posted by cog_nate at 11:20 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great post, by the way.
posted by cog_nate at 11:20 AM on February 2, 2010


When I was a kid and my parents were worried about my losing interest in school at a very young age, the principal gave my folks a few projects to keep my little brain busy. One of them was to mark off a square foot (of Midwestern woodland) and see what I could find. I loved it! Not as impressive as this work, yeah, but that dead honeybee was the highlight of the day for me.
posted by kozad at 11:26 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Damn multicellular chauvinists, count the microbes too.
posted by scodger at 11:32 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


scodger there's more bacteria per square foot of human, than human.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 11:41 AM on February 2, 2010


I pay them no mind until they start eating my lunch. Then, I get serious.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:45 AM on February 2, 2010


This is why Jains don't eat root vegetables.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:46 AM on February 2, 2010


Though this project does not do this, going below the millimeter scale would open up a wide new world of biodiversity, with millions upon millions of bacterial species.

Where we used to catalog bacterial diversity by swiping agar plates with samples, throwing them into an incubator and looking at them under a microscope, we now use molecular-level techniques, looking at the unique parts of an organism's 16S ribosomal RNA to get a better understanding of the range of microscopic life that we live among.

On the human body alone, genetically speaking, only 10% of the cells that make up the body are "yours". Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) likens it to a situation where we are just along for the ride.

As another example of work at this scale, Craig Venter, known recently for his research into algae biofuel and for his contributions to the human genome project, has worked to catalog the biodiversity of the bacteria that live in the sea.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:50 AM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


I Am Jain's Root Vegetable. And I approve of this post.
posted by pracowity at 11:50 AM on February 2, 2010


One of them was to mark off a square foot (of Midwestern woodland) and see what I could find

Some of my very fondest memories of childhood were of doing things like this. I remember just sitting in a little patch of backyard for what felt like hours and taking careful stock of all the the bugs, grasses, and teensy little weeds.

Hell, I kind of feel like going outside and doing it that right now.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:55 AM on February 2, 2010


As another example of work at this scale, Craig Venter, known recently for his research into algae biofuel and for his contributions to the human genome project, has worked to catalog the biodiversity of the bacteria that live in the sea.

BP, thank you for those links. I happened upon this article and your FPP on Venter's work while composing this post. Fascinating stuff.
posted by zarq at 11:57 AM on February 2, 2010


This post reminds me a just a bit of this odd, smart little book about the tiny bits of bone, exoskeleton, and mineral that make up ordinary beach sand.

If you like this post, I recommend the book highly.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:04 PM on February 2, 2010


On the human body alone, genetically speaking, only 10% of the cells that make up the body are "yours".

Alright, thanks for completely freaking me out.
posted by marxchivist at 12:41 PM on February 2, 2010


The team then sorted through their habitat cubes and tallied every inhabitant

I misread this as 'the team then sorted through their habitat cubes and killed every inhabitant."

I'm really glad they didn't do that.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 3:15 PM on February 2, 2010


I sorta do this with kids I'm watching. Sooner or later I pull them away from the computer games, take them outside, and mark off a square of yard, then dare them to see who can find the most critters in it.

Last time I played it, the 5yo totally kicked the 6yo's butt.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:41 PM on February 2, 2010


We went to the other cube first, and by the time we made it to this cube, mostly everyone had left.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:12 PM on February 2, 2010


One of them was to mark off a square foot (of Midwestern woodland) and see what I could find.

I used to do this with a square foot of grassy field when I was teaching high school bio. The students were amazed at how many different kinds of plants they found in what looked like just grass from a few yards off. Cool post, thanks.
posted by mediareport at 5:45 PM on February 2, 2010


> Alright, thanks for completely freaking me out.
> posted by marxchivist at 3:41 PM on February 2 [+] [!]

Let me try. If everything about you were removed except the nematode roundworms that inhabit you, there would still be a ghostly you standing there.
posted by jfuller at 6:02 PM on February 2, 2010


thank you so much for posting this
posted by yesster at 9:18 PM on February 2, 2010


this is a happy thing to think about. will try to remember in the spring, stick my hand in some dirt, and feel grateful
posted by elephantsvanish at 9:59 PM on February 2, 2010


Very interesting stuff... It makes you realize the small things in life, things that you don't know or care about and makes you realize things- somewhat similar to the guy who takes people's garbage and photographs the contents.
posted by JiffyQ at 11:46 PM on February 2, 2010


When I lie about in our yard in the summer, and really pay attention, I find it very difficult to mow the lawn afterwards because I feel like a murdering beast. This has led to us being known as hippies by our neighbors. But hey, our lawn's still green in July, while theirs is a desert.
posted by RedEmma at 10:53 AM on February 3, 2010


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