Photographer David Liittschwager Documents Amazing Biodiversity Found in 'One Cubic Foot'

moorea coral reef david liittschwager photo

A sampling of the species found around a coral reef in French Polynesia. Photo by David Liittschwager via National Geographic.

Even a small patch of dirt in the middle of a big city can be full of natural wonders -- if you look closely enough. That's what photographer David Liittschwager did, carrying a one-cubic-foot metal frame to habitats around the world and capturing the hundreds of species that inhabited or passed through that small ecosystem.Whether digging in the fertile soil of a deciduous forest in New York's Central Park or perching 100 feet up in a strangler fig tree in Costa Rica, Liittschwager planted his open-sided 12-inch box-shaped frame on land and in water and then started "watching, counting, and photographing ... the creatures that lived in or move through that space," National Geographic explained in a feature about his work. Along with an assistant and a team of biologists, he "sorted through [the] habitat cubes, coaxing out every inhabitant, down to a size of about a millimeter," spending an average of three weeks at each site.

The World in Miniature
"In any habitat, on the ground, in the forest canopy, or in the water, your eye is first caught by the big animals -- birds, mammals, fish, butterflies. But gradually the smaller inhabitants, far more numerous, begin to eclipse them," Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist and author Edward O. Wilson wrote in a piece accompanying Liittschwager's photos in National Geographic. "It may seem that the whole icky lot of them, and the miniature realms they inhabit, are unrelated to human concerns. But scientists have found the exact opposite to be true. Together with the bacteria and other invisible microorganisms swimming and settled around the mineral grains of the soil, the ground dwellers are the heart of life on Earth."

Of the locations he and his team sampled, Liittschwager found the greatest amount of biodiversity on a coral reef crest in Moorea, French Polynesia: 600 species in one cubic foot, including damselfish, sacoglossan sea slugs, oval butterflyfish, pygmy gobi, sea stars, and pistol shrimp, the photographer told the radio program The World.

It's not the first time Liittschwager a methodical way of photographing to create a unique visual take on nature: He previously captured the strange, vivid ocean life around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands against stark white backgrounds and created studio-style portraits of endangered species. For "One Cubic Foot," he photographed more than 1,000 individual organisms and plans to continue working on the project, which, he told The World, shows that "it doesn't take a grand landscape to be worth recognizing the value and the joy that can be gotten out of looking closely at nature and enjoying the act of watching your step and seeing what's alive around you."

More about nature photography:
Elizabeth Carmel's Spectacular Sierra Nevada, Captured Before Global Warming Changes It All (Slideshow)
Musings on Nature and Man's Place in It (Slideshow)
Awesome Grand Prize 2009 Wildlife Photos
Awesome Photos: Predators of Europe (Slideshow)
Top Sony Prize for Photos of the Desert Southwest
Wild Wonders of Europe Launches Biggest Ever Nature Photography Project

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