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BioBlitz in one Cubic Foot

Students from Star of the Sea Middle School, in Honolulu, received a vivid lesson on how much biodiversity may be contained in a tiny fragment of forest leaf litter when they went out into Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park with David Liittschwager and his famous green 12-inch cube.

Liittschwager’s “One Cubic Foot” photography has been featured in National Geographic Magazine and other publications, including in a feature article by E.O. Wilson, “Within One Cubic Foot.”

“We can put this cube down and find all the life inside,” Liittschwager explained to students as he led them into dense undergrowth near the rim of the Kilauea crater. “It’s a really neat way to measure the diversity of species in one small place.”

Cristina Veresan, science teacher and assistant principal, organized the trip for 20 students from the seventh and eighth grade to participate in the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park BioBlitz last weekend, the ninth in a series of annual BioBlitzes in the run-up to next year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The BioBlitz, organized by NPS and National Geographic, is a citizen science project for students to work with scientists to discover the richness of biodiversity in the parks. Liittschwager shows them that they don’t really need to look at much more than the equivalent of a shovelful or two of leaf litter to realize that the place swarms with species.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity for citizen science,” Veresan said of the BioBlitz. “I love that the kids are able to work alongside real scientists, cultural practitioners, and community members in this scientific enterprise to inventory the species of the park. But more than that, it is an opportunity just to celebrate the biodiversity here at Hawai’i Volcanoes. We live in a really special place and I want that the kids to appreciate that and aim to protect it in the future.”

David Liittschwager was clearly enjoying the opportunity to engage with the students.

“It’s great fun,” he told me as we trudged through the undergrowth. The students had just been shown a bunch of “happy face” spiders under a leaf, and now he was asking them to scout for likely places to place the cubic foot.

Photographs by David Braun
Photographs by David Braun

“When you have to explain yourself it makes you think about what you’re really doing, you have to reduce it to something.” he said after he demonstrated to the students what the concept was for the cubic foot. “You can’t drone on. You have to explain the essence of it in as few words as possible and hopefully frame it in something that is meaningful to them. They’re like little learning machines. You don’t talk at them; you let them try to lead the way.”

To stimulate their involvement, David tells the students that they must select the spot the cubic-foot sample. “My only suggestion to them is that a flat surface will contain all the same leaf-litter composite. I advised them to look at something with a little more topography — so of course they go right over the cliff right next to the road. But they found a great spot.”

The students had slithered scrambled into a narrow crevasse, where the soil was like a sodden sponge, crammed with plants and fungi of every kind. Who knew what bugs might also be in there. After a lot of discussion, it was decided where they wanted to place the cube. Liittschwager photographed it from various angles, then gently lifted half a dozen samples from the leaf litter. “We’ll keep going on this spot since we don’t have days for the kids to spend with it,” he said. “We introduced them to it, they chose the spot, and we will keep coming back to it to get more samples. Ten we will share with them the data from what we found in their cube.”

The idea is to work with the teacher and students to package the experiment, including pictures of the students in the forest, what they saw in the broader landscape, and then moving in closer to what was found in their cube.