Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Biocubes – Exploring Biodiversity

What Is a Biocube?

A biocube is a fun, informative, and manageable way of exploring the biodiversity in the world around you by focusing on a cubic foot of space. By looking closely and documenting the life in a small area, one can get a better understanding of how different ecosystems are structured and how they function.

Biocubes are easy and flexible to use:

  • Investigate anywhere with minimal resources
  • Tailor the experience to your goals
  • Modify for all ages/grades/audiences
  • Connect with projects elsewhere
  • Access easy-to-use online resources
  • Connect with local biodiversity

About Biocubes

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 and group leaders can facilitate highly relevant field biology exercises at this small, accessible scale. By focusing on a cubic foot of space, anyone, can characterize representative communities and begin to understand distributions, interactions, and relationships, just like scientists.

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.

Contact us at biocube@si.edu (link sends e-mail).

How to Use Biocubes

For Printing: Instructions (PDF) | Flowchart (PDF)

Connect with iNaturalist

Request a Biocube ID to identify your project

  • Contact Jen through iNaturalist to get a Biocube ID
  • Provide information about your group and location

Begin “About my Biocube”

  • Print and enter your Biocube ID into the About my Biocube form
  • Review what data you will need to collect

Formulate approach and define goals

  • How much time do you have?
  • What concepts, questions, or comparisons do you want to investigate?
  • Ideas for investigations

Watch Video - Building a Biocube

Gather supplies and permissions

  • Collect supplies to build, extract, sort and identify
  • Obtain needed permits and permissions

Build your biocube

Select a biocube site

  • Watch Video - Selecting the Spot and Placing a Biocube
  • Survey potential sites
  • If you cannot return to your study site to return specimens after you collect and sort your cube, think about impact and how to minimize it.
  • Explore and document the area. Ask your group how does the area affect the community? How might overhanging structures, shading, water level, changes that might occur in other seasons, manmade alterations, etc., impact your cube? Complete a Site Observation Sheet
  • Select a site and place your biocube

Observe your biocube

Sample things that move through your biocube

  • Prepare containers to hold motile specimens.
  • Watch Video - Collecting Motile Specimens
  • If your cube contains air and plants, sweep an insect net to collect mobile insect visitors.
  • If your cube contains water, use a dip net to catch swimming visitors.

Extract your biocube

  • Watch Video - Collecting the Contents of the Cube
  • If part of your cube is in water, collect a representative bucket of about the right volume.
  • If it contains sediment, use a shovel to dig it out and transfer into another container.
  • Speed matters and it doesn’t have to be perfect. You are attempting to take a ‘snapshot’ of a biological community. The more you dillydally, the more individuals will escape!
  • Do your best to not disrupt your sample yet. Your biocube will probably be in a few pieces. Treat each piece delicately and keep out of direct sun.

Sort your biocube

  • When you set up to sort, keep the temperature and other conditions as stable as possible. A black bucket or plastic bag in direct sunlight will warm up quickly, so keep dark containers in the shade. Small samples of mud or wet sediment will dry if left exposed; keep these in covered containers.
  • A large, white surface is great for sorting — as is a tray or shallow dish if you’re working with water. Use a colander or sieve to separate organisms from substrate. Have some clean water from the same habitat on-hand.
  • Sort a little of your biocube at a time; be patient. You can imagine that many of the residents are hiding. Give them time to start moving. Look in the corners of your container.
  • As you find your organisms, put those that look the same together.

Count, photograph, and identify the residents of your biocube

  • For each species you find, count or estimate how many specimens or individuals are present (long dark grass, 4 separate tufts; earthworms, 3; large black ants, 2; small brown ants, approx. 40...). Fill in Specimen Datasheet (Word document)
  • Watch Video - Photographing and Illustrating the Specimens
  • For each species, take one or several photographs of one individual. If your specimen is small, try photographing it through a magnifying glass. Try to catch all the distinctive-looking details. Close-up shots are helpful. So are shots from different angles (e.g., one from above, one from the side). Placing a ruler in the background allows your photo to document body size (get printable ruler). Shining a small bright light on the specimen can help improve photos, as can using a matte white or black background, such as construction paper or cloth. Check out these additional photo tips.
  • Watch Video - Building a Species List
  • For each species, try to identify it. If it is a “bug" of some kind, is it an insect, or an arachnid, or a millipede, or a pill bug (isopod)? If it is an insect, is it an ant, a bee, a fly (careful, those two can be tricky!) a dragonfly, or something else? Is it in the family Dytiscidae or Hydrophillidae? Local field guides are very helpful and available at your local library. Use free online resources and keys to insects, plants, mushrooms, crustaceans, etc., of your region. Identifying specimens can be challenging, but take it as far as you can with confidence.  Even your most basic identifications are helpful.

Minimize impact on the landscape

  • Watch Video - Returning the Specimens
  • Return soil, rocks, dead wood, or other substrate from where you took it.  Do you have living organisms still in your possession? If you do not intend to preserve them or study them further, take them back to the same place. Similar appearing habitats are not necessarily the same. Introducing organisms in the wrong place or even in sites that look similar is damaging.

Report your findings

  • Finish filling in your Specimen Datasheet (Word document)
  • Fill in the online About my Biocube form.
  • Log onto iNaturalist and upload biocube data as observations within the Biocube Project. (Adult supervision is recommended, as iNaturalist activity is pinpointed on a publicly visible map.)
  • Get detailed instructions for iNaturalist.
  • You can compare your biocube with others around the world. Download your dataset using your Biocube ID if you’d like to graph or analyze your data further.

Biocubes in Action

Watch videos of photographer David Liittschwager and his team deploying biocubes in some of the world’s most charismatic ecosystems. Go to Biocubes in Action

Resource Type
Hands-On Activities
Grade Level
6-8
Topics
Life Science