Through the Magnifying Glass

© CI/Piotr Naskrecki

© CI/Piotr Naskrecki

As the saying goes, it’s the little things in life that really matter. Literally. I’m talking about the millions of tiny creatures that go unnoticed each day by most of us.

Dr. E.O. Wilson and David Liittschwager’s recent article in the February issue of National Geographic Magazine, “Within One Cubic Foot,” really brings these creatures to life for us. The close-up photos of hundreds of colorful and spectacular species bring this microscopic world to our eyes.

In just one cubic foot, Liittschwager documented an incredible array of biodiversity: more than 600 individual organisms in a coral reef in French Polynesia, 90 species in the Fynbos of South Africa, 32 fish species and over 100 clams in a river in Tennessee (USA) and over 500 insects representing 100 species in a Costa Rican cloud forest.

To me, this diversity is fascinating but not too surprising. As an entomologist working for CI’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), I have closely studied hundreds of one meter square plots on the rain forest floor, many containing over 30 ant species per plot. Our RAP team scientists document the diversity of remote and unexplored parts of our world, consistently revealing hundreds of species new to science, most of them from this realm of miniature creatures. It’s truly exhilarating for us to explore and study these tiny organisms, knowing that most of what we’re looking at has not yet been described by science and may not even have been seen by humans before!

The diversity of these little animals is the foundation of life in the forest and on the rest of our planet. They serve essential functions by breaking down dead and decaying material, acting as predators and prey, pollinating plants and sustaining the chemical processes that keep us all alive. In the article, renowned entomologist and biodiversity expert (and my Ph.D. advisor), Dr. E.O. Wilson points out that “without the smooth working of all this linkage, the biosphere would cease to exist”. In his book, “The Creation” (2006), Dr. Wilson explains, “People need insects to survive, but insects do not need us. If all humankind were to disappear tomorrow, it is unlikely that a single insect species would go extinct, except three forms of human body and head lice…but if insects were to vanish, the terrestrial environment would soon collapse into chaos.”

I am excited to see this intriguing story in National Geographic and hope that these spectacular photos help to bring these creatures more attention and respect. If you’d like to see more photos and stories of this fascinating world, I highly recommend reading the book “The Smaller Majority” by my good friend and colleague, Dr. Piotr Naskrecki. His macro-photography is beautiful and the stories of the small but dominant creatures of the earth are a must read.

Learn more about the discoveries made on our RAP expeditions.

Leeanne Alonso manages CI’s RAP program.


  1. Ray says

    The circle of life is truly amazing. It is fascinating to see that each of these little creatures plays its own role in balancing the ecosystems across the globe. Each one affects the other.

    It is truly a shame to learn the speed at which so many of these little creatures become extinct.

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