Planet of the Insects

 “Not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

How diverse is biodiversity? The answer is as uncertain as the question is compelling. Without knowing what’s out there, it’s hard to save it. Yet after centuries of discovering, naming and classifying living things, scientists have only scratched the surface.

To date, some 1.7 million species have been formally described. But intensive spot sampling of insects—by far the most populous taxon—combined with sophisticated extrapolation exercises suggests we’re only just beginning to understand the extent of life on Earth. Current best guesses are on the order of 12.5 million distinct species, give or take 5 million.

Planet of the Insects
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Around the world, biologists continue to discover new creatures at the tops of trees or bottoms of seas. Even as they do, others debate what, exactly, “species” means—or whether it has any useful meaning at all. Regardless of the outcome of that argument, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to consider all forms of biodiversity—genetic and ecosystem as well as taxonomic—in deciding how to best sustain the systems that sustain us.

As myrmecologist E.O. Wilson observed: “Since we depend on an abundance of functioning ecosystems to cleanse our water and manufacture the very air we breathe, biodiversity is clearly not an inheritance to be discarded carelessly.”

Data source: World Conservation Monitoring Centre (1992) Global Biodiversity: Status of the Earth’s Living Resources. Chapman & Hall, London.
Photos: David Liittschwager/National Geographic Stock
Infographic: Todd Reubold
Text: Mary Hoff

Out of Africa

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As part of National Geographic’s One Cubic Foot project, photographer David Liittschwager traveled from Central Park in New York to coral reefs in French Polynesia to photograph all the living things, down to one millimeter in size, inhabiting or moving through a single cubic foot of space in various habitats.

The creepy crawlies in this slideshow are among the many organisms he and his team found in a cubic foot of fynbos (a shrublike ecosystem) on Table Mountain in South Africa.

Planet of the Microbes?

How much do microorganisms contribute to Earth’s overall species diversity? Planet of the Microbes shares some interesting insights from University of Minnesota bacterial physiologist Jeffrey Gralnick.