Changing Planet

BioBlitz in one Cubic Foot

Students from Star of the Sea Middle School, in Honolulu, received a vivid lesson on how much biodiversity may be contained in a tiny fragment of forest leaf litter when they went out into Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park with David Liittschwager and his famous green 12-inch cube.

Liittschwager’s “One Cubic Foot” photography has been featured in National Geographic Magazine and other publications, including in a feature article by E.O. Wilson, “Within One Cubic Foot.”

“We can put this cube down and find all the life inside,” Liittschwager explained to students as he led them into dense undergrowth near the rim of the Kilauea crater. “It’s a really neat way to measure the diversity of species in one small place.”

Cristina Veresan, science teacher and assistant principal, organized the trip for 20 students from the seventh and eighth grade to participate in the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park BioBlitz last weekend, the ninth in a series of annual BioBlitzes in the run-up to next year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The BioBlitz, organized by NPS and National Geographic, is a citizen science project for students to work with scientists to discover the richness of biodiversity in the parks. Liittschwager shows them that they don’t really need to look at much more than the equivalent of a shovelful or two of leaf litter to realize that the place swarms with species.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity for citizen science,” Veresan said of the BioBlitz. “I love that the kids are able to work alongside real scientists, cultural practitioners, and community members in this scientific enterprise to inventory the species of the park. But more than that, it is an opportunity just to celebrate the biodiversity here at Hawai’i Volcanoes. We live in a really special place and I want that the kids to appreciate that and aim to protect it in the future.”

David Liittschwager was clearly enjoying the opportunity to engage with the students.

“It’s great fun,” he told me as we trudged through the undergrowth. The students had just been shown a bunch of “happy face” spiders under a leaf, and now he was asking them to scout for likely places to place the cubic foot.

Photographs by David Braun
Photographs by David Braun

“When you have to explain yourself it makes you think about what you’re really doing, you have to reduce it to something.” he said after he demonstrated to the students what the concept was for the cubic foot. “You can’t drone on. You have to explain the essence of it in as few words as possible and hopefully frame it in something that is meaningful to them. They’re like little learning machines. You don’t talk at them; you let them try to lead the way.”

To stimulate their involvement, David tells the students that they must select the spot the cubic-foot sample. “My only suggestion to them is that a flat surface will contain all the same leaf-litter composite. I advised them to look at something with a little more topography — so of course they go right over the cliff right next to the road. But they found a great spot.”

The students had slithered scrambled into a narrow crevasse, where the soil was like a sodden sponge, crammed with plants and fungi of every kind. Who knew what bugs might also be in there. After a lot of discussion, it was decided where they wanted to place the cube. Liittschwager photographed it from various angles, then gently lifted half a dozen samples from the leaf litter. “We’ll keep going on this spot since we don’t have days for the kids to spend with it,” he said. “We introduced them to it, they chose the spot, and we will keep coming back to it to get more samples. Ten we will share with them the data from what we found in their cube.”

The idea is to work with the teacher and students to package the experiment, including pictures of the students in the forest, what they saw in the broader landscape, and then moving in closer to what was found in their cube.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media.

Assignments in 80 countries/territories included visits to a secret rebel base in Angola, Sahrawi camps in Algeria, and Wayana villages in the remote Amazon. Braun traveled with Nelson Mandela on the liberation leader’s Freedom Tour of North America, accompanied President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton to their foundation’s projects in four African countries and Mexico, covered African peace talks chaired by Fidel Castro in Havana and Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Cairo, and collaborated with Angelina Jolie at World Refugee Day events in Washington, D.C. As a member of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, and media representative to the Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, he joined researchers on field inspections in many parts of the world.

Braun has been a longtime member/executive of journalist guilds, press clubs, and professional groups, including the National Press Club (Washington) and editorial committee of the Online Publishers Association. He served as WMA Magazine of the Year Awards judge (2010-2012), advisory board member of Children’s Eyes On Earth International Youth Photography Contest (2012), and multimedia/communications affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers (2015-2017).

David Braun edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world.

He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience.

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Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

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Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

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