About Biocube

Montage of dozens of sea creatures, including fish, crabs, and sea stars

Within One Cubic Foot, photo by David Liittschwager


Studying the species that make up an ecosystem is the first step in understanding how biological systems function and predicting impacts of change. Describing this diversity by documenting life on the planet is the role of natural history museums.

Most of the world’s biodiversity occurs at small scales: organisms hidden in leaf litter, soil, and the nooks and crannies of environments. Thus, teachers can lead highly relevant field biology exercises at this small, accessible scale. By focusing on a cubic foot of space, students, just like scientists, can characterize representative communities and begin to understand distributions, interactions, and relationships.


The Biocube program was inspired by a feature article in National Geographic that involved Smithsonian scientists and led to a book, "A World in One Cubic Foot: Portraits of Biodiversity." The biocubes featured in the book were documented by photographer David Liittschwager, assisted by a professional field crew and in consultation with various biologists. The cubes were from around the world and highlighted several things about biodiversity in small spaces, including a staggering number of nook and cranny species; almost every cubic foot they sampled yielded hundreds of species. The biocubes showed interesting differences among living communities from different continents, different habitats, and wild versus domesticated land.

What can we discover in just a cubic foot of Earth? As it turns out, a whole lot! Biocubes — the life in a cubic foot of soil or water over one day — capture enough variation to explore the complexity of entire ecosystems. You don’t have to be a professional wildlife photographer or biologist to investigate and report on a biocube. 

Questions? Contact us at biocube@si.edu.