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Planet of the Insects

PLANET OF THE INSECTS 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 Regardless of the outcome of that argument, it's be- coming 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 of discovering, naming and classifying living things, scientists have only scratched the surface. systems that sustain us. 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 sophis- ticated 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. 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." NUMBER OF KNOWN SPECIES ESTIMATE OF UNKNOWN SPECIES 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. Infographic: Todd Reubold | Text: Mary Hoff | Photos: David Liittschwager/National Geographic Stock Data source: World Conservation Monitoring Centre (1992) Global Biodiversity: Status of the Earth's Living Resources. Chapman & Hall, London. FUNGI 70,000 1,000,000 INSECTS 950,000 8,000,000 ARACHNIDS 75,000 750,000 NEMATODES 15,000 500,000 VIRUSES 5,000 500,000 BACTERIA MOLLUSCS 4,000 400,000 70,000 200,000 PLANTS 240,000 300,000 CRUSTACEANS 40,000 150,000 ALGAE 40,000 200,000 VERTEBRATES 45,000 PROTOZOANS 50,000 40,000 200,000 OUT OF AFRICA 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 on this page 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. To view more creatures from the South Africa expedition, visit ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/02/cubic-foot/wilson-text. © Ensia | ensia.com 2013

Planet of the Insects

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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 classi...

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