• May 12, 2015

All the Creatures You Can Find in One Cubic Foot

Becky Harlan

“There is more life in one cubic foot than anyone could look at in a month,” says photographer David Liittschwager. And he should know—he’s become famous for carting a green cube around the globe, one cubic foot in area, placing it anywhere from a coral reef in French Polynesia to New York City’s Central Park, then documenting all of the life he finds inside. He photographed cubes in five different locations for National Geographic magazine in 2010, with stunning results.

Picture of all of the species collected inside a one square foot cube from a coral reef in French Polynesia laid out on a white background
Coral reef species collected within a one cubic foot cube in Moorea Island, French Polynesia.

Liittschwager jokes that his “dirty little secret” is that he’s never actually finished photographing all the life in the cubes. “I’m happy that the world is so rich that I failed at my job. We did the best we could, but it’s sort of built into the formula. We go to places that are known to be high diversity and see where we can place this cube so that it contains the most life. But all you have to do is look a little closer, and you just have to keep going. So you never finish, and that’s kind of fantastic.”

Picture of two people snorkeling and placing a green cube in a coral reef
Shanshan He, a student at Ross School in Long Island, and Christopher Meyer, a research zoologist and curator for the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, place a biocube in Tetiaroa Atoll, French Polynesia.

The project didn’t stop with his magazine story. He’s since collaborated with the Smithsonian and other educational institutions to work with students at levels ranging from fifth grade to college, showing them how to use the biocube and to collect data in a “scientifically rigorous manner, so that it can be shared.”

Watch students explore our world using the biocube.

The “sharing” part is where photography comes in. Since students aren’t keeping the specimens they find, their only record remains in the photographs they take, so the quality and clarity of those images is vital. Liittschwager says that they’re making an effort to photographically document the creatures in the students’ biocubes “to a level that the species ID can be confirmed by experts, which turns those photographs into virtual voucher specimens, so that somebody else can go back to the original claim and confirm that this is what that thing actually was.”

And since not everyone has his fancy setup …

Picture of a camera set-up used to photograph specimens
The camera setup that David Liittschwager uses to photograph specimens

Liittschwager gives us a ten-step how-to on photographing specimens to meet research standards with simpler equipment: a mobile phone or a point-and-shoot camera. These are abbreviated, but you can see the full instructions here.


1. Choose the appropriate container for your specimen. For example, the bottom part of a clear plastic cup or the inside of a white jar lid.

Picture of the bottom of a clear plastic cup, a white jar lid, and a clear plate with a white lid on it

2. Find a plain, white background to photograph the specimen against.

3. Pick a location with lots of natural light. If there isn’t enough available light, use a flashlight or a “white card” to add light to the subject.

Picture of a flashlight shining light on a snail

4. Try to get the specimen as big in the frame as you can, but avoid using digital zoom. If the creature is too small, try getting a close-up lens attachment, which you can easily purchase online.

Picture of a smartphone with a closeup lens attachment added in order to photograph a snail

5. Make sure the creature is in focus. Most phones will allow you to lock the focus with your finger on the screen so it doesn’t shift as you follow the specimen.

6. Think about depth of field. Macro photos often suffer from shallow depth of field, meaning that only a small part of the image is in focus. If this is the case, make sure to take photos with the focus in various places.

Picture of a snail with only its antenna in focus

7. Be mindful of reflections. You may need to reposition your camera or any added light so that the reflection is in an inconspicuous place.

8. Take descriptive pictures. Scientists look at certain physical characteristics for species identification that vary from creature to creature, so don’t be afraid to try several angles.

9. Before moving on, make sure your photo is in focus and that you can see detail everywhere on its body.

Picture of a snail taken with a smartphone
This is an actual smartphone photo!

10. Most importantly, have fun and keep going.


You might be wondering, “What do these photos matter? What kind of take away can a scientist get from seeing my photo of a snail in my backyard?”

I asked Liittschwager.

“They show how much life there is in the world, and that is a useful thing because a few years from now it’s going to be different,” he says. “The species composition will be different, the rate of change. The world is not going to die, the world is going to change. It’s a way to know about the character of that change. It’s a mechanism to record the abundance, or lack thereof, of life around you. It’s a way of paying attention.”

If you want to participate in this biodiversity citizen science project, you can upload your own photos of species you find to iNaturalist. Liittschwager explains, “Add the best name you can, and the rest of the iNaturalist community can see your work and help refine the species ID. When a species ID is confirmed twice on iNaturalist, it becomes a research grade observation and is uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which is the central repository for biodiversity data. It’s mined by everybody. Scholarly, it’s the agreed upon central repository for such data.”

You can also upload your specimen photos to Your Shot, National Geographic’s photo community, with the hashtag #greatnature.

From May 15 to 16, hundreds of citizen scientists will descend on Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park for BioBlitz to inventory as many species as possible. Liittschwager and the National Geographic Your Shot team will be on the ground. Stay tuned to the BioBlitz website for updates.

See images of biodiversity at its best, submitted by our Your Shot community and curated by Liittschwager.

There are 19 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sophia Ga.
    October 28, 2015

    I think this is really cool. I’m sure there’s so much more life in a cubic foot that we can’t see with our bare eyes.

  2. Serena I.
    October 28, 2015

    I liked that schools also got to participate and wish my school could have done that! Also, in the article, I liked that it showed us how to do the same thing without all the fancy equipment that Mr. Liittschwager has!

  3. Sidney Sun
    October 28, 2015

    I think it’s truly amazing how many living organisms are in just one cubic foot in nature. It seems really fun to place your cube somewhere and occasionally look at it and take the different kinds of organisms, take a photo, and post it where people can look at it and comment on it. Even though it’s a lot of work, it seems worth it.

  4. Samantha C.
    October 28, 2015

    wow! I never knew so much could be found in just one cubic foot. There is so much that could be seen around us yet we don’t take the time to appreciate it. This made me look at our environment and the world around us a lot differently.

  5. Shana
    October 28, 2015

    I hope all school could have the opportunity to experience this and it’s importance. I like how you explained the simplicity and impact of taking a good picture has on the ability for it to later be studied

  6. Sage
    October 28, 2015

    I think that it is so cool that there are infinite species of animals and plants in just one cubic foot! Imagine what the whole world is like!

  7. Ana S.
    October 28, 2015

    I found it really cool that he’s able too go and travel the world and see it beautiful diversity. Even if it is just in a square foot.

  8. Mercy
    October 28, 2015

    I thought it was cool how much life they found in just 1 cubic foot. I wonder how long it takes them to find all the life in the cubic foot

  9. Pan Springer
    May 19, 2015

    as seen on the pictures, when divers hold on tight to the reef…
    Becky, do you have only one answer ?

  10. Joe Ingerson-Mahar
    May 18, 2015

    This is a very interesting idea – there is greater biodiversity than we think. This is also inspiring because I have been trying to get researchers interested in the biodiversity of insects caught in our network of blacklights in New Jersey. It makes me wonder how many species we would collect in a single night.

  11. Otto Whitehead
    May 18, 2015

    Awesome concept and execution. Thank you for documenting the intricacies of such a tiny world; the diversity and beauty of which would go largely unnoticed by most Homo sapiens urbanus if it wasn’t for projects like these.

  12. Carol A Tavani MD
    May 17, 2015

    I didn’t get that he killed them! If so this is abominable. Audubon murdered the birds he drew- what a travesty. I’d like to think we’ve progressed in reverence for life since then. I hope it is clarified whether this is true. If so he should be prosecuted not admired.

    • Becky Harlan
      May 18, 2015

      Hi Carol, I regret that this was not made more clear from the post, but David works in close collaboration with scientists and research institutions engaged in biological survey work. Every effort is made to minimize impact. Thank you for your concern!

  13. Jose Augusto Grullon-Suro
    May 15, 2015

    Un 1959 I asked muy teacher and classmates:Do you think there are more eyesthan leaves in the Planet?
    They lughed at me,because I mantained that there are more eyesit’s just that de we don’t see them. Here it’s the proveprove!

  14. maumastoks
    May 14, 2015

    He basically killed all the animals from each of that cubic foot. Especially if they are sea animals. Stop making this project sound so awesome. It is terrible! This person should get huge fines for killing wild animals, no matter how small they are. Life is life – even if you’re a human it doesn’t mean you are allowed to kill other species just to get nice pictures.

    • Becky Harlan
      May 18, 2015

      Hi There, I regret that this was not made more clear from the post, but David works in close collaboration with scientists and research institutions engaged in biological survey work. Every effort is made to minimize impact. Thank you for your concern!

  15. mrgunman1
    May 13, 2015

    I Love nature photography and Live in the Great Smokey mountains

  16. André Diniz
    May 13, 2015

    Did they really cut a chunk of a reef? Seriously?

    • Becky Harlan
      May 18, 2015

      Hi André, I regret that this was not made more clear from the post, but David works in close collaboration with scientists and research institutions engaged in biological survey work. Every effort is made to minimize impact. Thank you for your concern!

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