John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Monitor a tiny “biocube” for a day in New York, and these are the creatures you might see mosey on through.
Place a one-foot cube in New York’s Central Park and stare at it intensely for a day (best to load up on caffeine beforehand). What plants and animals might you see inhabiting that cozy space?
The answer is included in the upcoming Smithsonian exhibit “Life in One Cubic Foot” by David Liittschwager, a National Geographic contributor, former Richard Avedon assistant, and winner of the World Press Photo contest for nature imagery. Liittschwager’s traveled the world with a 12-inch box frame he sets in different environments and monitors for wildlife for 24 hours. Here’s what one of the so-called “biocubes” looks like on a reef near the remote Pacific island of Mo’orea:
In Central Park, his experiment turned up dozens of lifeforms, including spiders, slugs, grubs, flies, ants, fallen leaves, millipedes, birds, what look like ticks, and at least one squirrel and raccoon. Here’s the complete collection from micro-observations made at the park’s Hallett Nature Sanctuary:
“Biocubes” aren’t just for artistic pursuits, as they also have research applications in finding new life. Here’s more from a Smithsonian press release:
“Biocubes offer us a standardized lens to bring into focus the mosaic of richness and beauty that is found in nature, highlighting both the known and unknown in spectacular fashion,” said Chris Meyer, Smithsonian scientist. “In ‘Life in One Cubic Foot,’ we framed the biocube approach against the backdrop of efforts to survey all life on a single island in the Pacific. In doing so, we recognize the challenge and opportunity ahead for documenting the remaining life globally.”
Small and remote, the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia is an ideal model ecosystem for documenting biodiversity, especially across its rich coral reef ecosystems. In addition to a biocube placed on a reef off the island, Meyer and his colleagues with the Mo’orea Biocode Project deployed biocube-sized devices, called Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), in the waters surrounding the Pacific island. ARMS allow scientists to expand on early biodiversity inventories to create the most comprehensive census of a reef community to date. Using cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology, researchers determined that up to one half of the species found in these ecosystems are undocumented and awaiting discovery.
The exhibit opens Friday, March 4, at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Here are a couple more selections from the show—these are creatures infesting the reefs of Mo’orea:
And these are the crunchy, gelatinous things occupying the waters of the Monterey Submarine Canyon in California: