National Geographic Society Newsroom

One Cubic Foot of Life

It’s not quite William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.” But almost! For the February issue of National Geographic magazine, photographer David Liittschwager crafted a one-foot-square metal cube and placed it in a range of ecosystems—land and water, tropical and temperate, freshwater and marine. Over several weeks at each location, Liittschwager and a team...

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It’s not quite William Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.” But almost!

For the February issue of National Geographic magazine, photographer David Liittschwager crafted a one-foot-square metal cube and placed it in a range of ecosystems—land and water, tropical and temperate, freshwater and marine. Over several weeks at each location, Liittschwager and a team of biologists found, identified, and photographed creatures that passed through the cube.

The result is a microcosmic—and visually stunning—inventory of ecosystem biodiversity at our planet’s surface and just below. “It was like finding little gems,” says Liittschwager. (Watch him place his cube in New York’s Central Park.)

“In any habitat,” writes Harvard naturalist E.O. Wilson for the issue, “on the ground, in the forest canopy, or in the water, your eye is first caught by the big animals—birds, mammals, fish, butterflies. But gradually the smaller inhabitants, far more numerous, begin to eclipse them. There are the insect myriads creeping and buzzing among the weeds, the worms and unnameable creatures that squirm or scuttle for cover when you turn garden soil for planting.”

Here—just beneath the surface, in soils, streambed sediments, and reef rubble—lurk countless species unknown to science.

Dig and you shall find.

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