Art

Photographing Biodiversity, One Cubic Foot at a Time

A biocube placed on the Tamae Reef off the Pacific island of Mo’orea (© David Liittschwager, all images courtesy Smithsonian Institution)
A biocube placed on the Tamae Reef off the Pacific island of Mo’orea (© David Liittschwager, all images courtesy Smithsonian Institution unless otherwise noted)

WASHINGTON, DC — Much of science is observation, being attuned to what others overlook. With just a green frame box, measuring one-by-one-by-one foot, Smithsonian scientist and photographer David Liittschwager traveled the world to document microcosms of biodiversity. Life in One Cubic Foot at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History joins his collaged photographic portraits of life seen in the biocubes over 24 hours, as well as documentation encouraging citizen scientists to use the cube approach to discover nature in their own communities.

Location: Hallett Nature Sanctuary, Central Park, New York City, Latitude: 40.76714961, Longitude: -73.9750859, Contact: Regina V. Alvarez, Director of Horticulture and Woodland Management, Central Park Conservancy, 14 East 60th Street, New York City, NY 10022, phone (212)-988-9026, email Ralvarez@centralparknyc.org
A biocube in place at the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park, New York City (© David Liittschwager)
Life in One Cubic Foot
A selection of creatures revealed through inventorying one cubic foot from Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park, New York City (© David Liittschwager)

One cubic foot might not seem like a lot, but much of the life on our planet is tiny, including its insects, crustaceans, arachnids, and plants. Liittschwager previously published his photographs in 2012’s A World in One Cubic Foot: Portraits of Biodiversity from the University of Chicago Press.

With a team of researchers, and support from National Geographic, he photographed creatures great and small in the trees of the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, in the leafy woods of Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park, submerged in Tennessee’s Duck River, in the coral reef of Moorea, French Polynesia, beneath the waves near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and in the shrubland of South Africa.

Cyerce nigricans, Sacaglossan sea slug, Lighthouse Reef, Moorea, French Polynesia (© David Liittschwager)
Cyerce nigricans, Sacaglossan sea slug, Lighthouse Reef, Moorea, French Polynesia (© David Liittschwager)

As he described in his book, Liittschwager traveled with a “miniature photo studio” to take portraits of the visitors to the cube (although for larger mammals he sometimes relied on “ambassadors” from other locations, like a squirrel seen in Central Park). He writes that some were easy, like millepedes that “seemed to pose politely for the camera,” while whirligig mites “measure less than a millimeter and accelerate scarily fast (a defense mechanism), so photographing them at five times life size was a sizable task.”

In the video below, Smithsonian curator and zoologist Chris Meyer says that biocubes offer a standard amount of space, to compare places around the world, and their changes over time. They also help “by focusing your attention” so that “diversity isn’t overwhelming if you sit there and take the time, examining it, creature by creature.” And even if you don’t have the patience to sit with a cube for 24 hours (no one ever said wildlife photography was easy), the collages are reminders to take a closer look at the thriving nature of our world, whether Central Park surrounded by the urban city, or a distant tropical rainforest.

Installation view of 'Life in One Cubic Foot' at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Life in One Cubic Foot’ at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Life in One Cubic Foot' at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Life in One Cubic Foot’ at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'Life in One Cubic Foot' at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Life in One Cubic Foot’ at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Life in One Cubic Foot
A selection of reef creatures from Mo’orea, French Polynesia revealed through inventorying one cubic foot from a reef off the coast of the Pacific island (© David Liittschwager)
Life in One Cubic Foot
A selection of midwater creatures revealed through inventorying one cubic foot from Monterey Canyon, off the coast of California (composite photo by David Liitschwager, Steve Haddock, Karen Osborn, and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

Life in One Cubic Foot is on view at Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (10th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC). The exhibition’s end date is TBA.

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