Documenting the 'Smaller Majority' of Life on Earth Ninety percent of the known species on Earth are smaller than a human finger. Zoologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki talks about The Smaller Majority, his new book, which chronicles Earth's biodiversity through startling photographs.
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Documenting the 'Smaller Majority' of Life on Earth

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Documenting the 'Smaller Majority' of Life on Earth

Documenting the 'Smaller Majority' of Life on Earth

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You know, we don't pay a lot of attention to the smaller creatures in our lives, unless they crawl or jump or fly in a way that annoy us. And when you hear the word `biodiversity,' what comes to mind? Right? You see the pandas, the tigers, maybe the elephants. But what you don't think about are the scorpions, the caterpillars or the praying mantises. While the bigger animals get more attention, invertebrates smaller than your hand make up most of the life on this planet. And just like the big animals, or the megafauna, the smaller creatures are also at risk.

Habitat destruction is causing the extinction of as many as a thousand species of invertebrates a year. Animals such as spiders and frogs, clams and mussels, geckos and mantises are disappearing even before scientists have a chance to really look and describe them.

So my first guest this hour is a zoologist and photographer who has captured the beauty of many of the animals in a new book. We're going to be talking about creatures this hour, and if you'd like to join us, our number is 1 (800) 989-8255. It's our creature feature for this afternoon.

Now let me introduce my guest. Piotr Naskrecki is the author of "The Smaller Majority." He is director of the Invertebrate Diversity Initiative at Conservation International and a research associate with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He joins us today from our NPR studios in Washington.

Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Naskrecki.

Dr. PIOTR NASKRECKI (Author, "The Smaller Majority"): Great to be here.

FLATOW: When we hear the word `biodiversity,' I was thinking--I mentioned this before; you know, we think of the pandas and the tigers, but you point out that over 90 percent of the known species are smaller than a human finger.

Dr. NASKRECKI: That's correct.


Dr. NASKRECKI: That's actually quite a conservative estimate, this figure of 90 percent. Some projections of the number of species that live on Earth talk about somewhere between 10 and 100 million still-unknown species. Almost all of them are invertebrates. So you can probably safely say that probably at least 99 percent of animals on Earth are actually smaller than a human finger, or smaller, even, than your fingernail.

FLATOW: Hmm. And they're dying out even before we can really study them?

Dr. NASKRECKI: That's absolutely true. That's actually the function of their size. Because of their small size, they have lower dispersal abilities, in many cases. They cannot easily cover long distances, and that means that a lot of these species are restricted in their distribution to very small patches of forest, a single mountaintop or a single stream. So cutting down--logging of even a tiny, tiny patch of a primary forest can actually spell the demise of quite a few species.

FLATOW: Is there any one place in the world where they're dying out faster than other places?

Dr. NASKRECKI: There are quite a few places like this, and we call them the hot spots of biodiversity. A hot spot of biodiversity is a place that combines a very high percentage of unique organisms, organisms that live nowhere else on Earth, and at the same time it's a place that's under immediate threat from human activity. One of such hot spots for biodiversity is, for example, the entire island of Madagascar, where we have already lost over 9 percent of its original plant coverage. And by doing that, we've probably also lost about 50 percent of its original fauna.

FLATOW: Is that because of civilization, burning, agriculture?

Dr. NASKRECKI: Yes. Yes. That's all because of uncontrolled deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, erosion caused by that. So basically you can, unfortunately, blame extinctions, in most cases, directly on our activity.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Dr. Piotr Naskrecki, who is author of "The Smaller Majority," a beautiful--it's a coffee-table book but has some fantastic, fantastic photographs of tiny creatures. And we actually have a few of those up on our Web site. If you go to, we've got three or four of these images on there. Now we can talk about the few of them that we see up there, for example. Let's talk about this grass mantid. Why did you choose to photograph that?

Dr. NASKRECKI: Well, mantids in general have fascinated me for a very, very long time. And...

FLATOW What is a mantid? Describe it for people who are not seeing it on the Web page.

Dr. NASKRECKI: OK. Let me start with this statement. Mantid--praying mantises--are basically cockroaches. They are predatious cockroaches. But very, very few people realize that praying mantis...

FLATOW: I'm shocked!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NASKRECKI: Yes, most people are. Praying mantis are insects that prey on other animals, mostly other insects, but some of the bigger praying mantis can actually capture a hummingbird or even a small lizard. They have the front--the first pair of legs is modified into these very powerful, grasping organs, and they can catch a flying insect in flight, they can catch a flying hummingbird, and they have a very, very good vision. They have big triangular head with big eyes, and they can follow their prey. And they're basically sit-and-wait predators. They hide in the vegetation. They'll hide sometimes even in plain sight, like, for example, the grass--savannah mantid(ph) that pretends to be just a stalk of dry grass. And they pounce on anything that crosses their path of vision. And despite this very different appearance from roaches and very different lifestyle, when you really look up close at their morphology and you look at their evolutionary history, they really are very, very closely related to cockroaches.

FLATOW: They--do they go back as old in time as cockroaches do?

Dr. NASKRECKI: They don't go as far back in time as roaches. Roaches go back to the carboniferous period, and mantids probably go back to Jurassic, about 60 million years ago. So they are still a very, very old lineage.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number if you'd like to call us. My apologies about our Web site. It's being inundated, so be patient. People are--I think we've melted it. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number.

You also point out something that's interesting about the praying mantis that I hadn't thought about before, in that it's--it can move its head around, something other insects can't do.

Dr. NASKRECKI: That's right. I mean, most insects can move their head to a very limited extent, but a praying mantis can actually turn her head pretty much all around and look back at you, and look back behind its own back. And that makes praying mantis, in combination with their sort of elongated form with the nicely, piously folded front legs--it makes them look almost human, and that probably is one of the reasons why we like praying mantis and we think they are somewhat different than other insects.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's talk about moths. Moths are kind of interesting. What attracts you very much to moths? And--a lot of photographs of moths in there.

Dr. NASKRECKI: I think moths, a lot of...

FLATOW: There's one on our Web site, too, there, so--if you can get to see it. Go ahead.

Dr. NASKRECKI: Mm-hmm. Moths in general, I think, are some of the most beautiful animals. The trick is to actually look at them up close. From a distance, moths look very, very cryptic. They often resemble a piece of bark or a piece of dry leaf. But, in fact, when you look really, really closely at the moth, you will realize that this seemingly plain pattern on their wings consists usually of very intricate, beautiful, often metallic designs. To me, they represent some of the most sophisticated examples of mimicry in insect world. And at the same time, they also have a fascinating biology. A lot of them...


Dr. NASKRECKI: ...can travel long distances. They can hear and--oh, I could talk about moths.

FLATOW: Well, let me--one in particular, the one we have on the Web site, the Mimetica, has the ability to turn and look exactly like a two-colored leaf on there.

Dr. NASKRECKI: That's true...

FLATOW: It's amazing.

Dr. NASKRECKI: ...but that particular insect, Mimetica, is actually a katydid. It's not a moth. It looks like a moth. It looks like a piece of dry leaf.


Dr. NASKRECKI: But it's a katydid. It's a relative of grasshoppers. And this particular species of katydids, again, are some of the absolutely best examples of mimicry in the animal world. I cannot think of a better example of an animal resembling a plant.


Dr. NASKRECKI: The shape of their wings, the coloration--you--it's absolutely impossible to find one of these animals during the day. You can only find them at night when they start feeding, and they have very long antennae that they slowly move, and that's the only thing that betrays their sort of animal provenance. You can only see them in your headlamp when they move slowly.

FLATOW: Talking with Piotr Naskrecki, the author of "The Smaller Majority," just an outstanding book of photographs of the tiny creatures. And when I look at it, being an amateur photographer myself, I say to myself: How do you position your camera in the jungle? How do you get these pictures? I mean, they--it's almost like they're waiting for you to take their photograph.

Dr. NASKRECKI: Well, there are basically two requirements for getting good photographs of animals in their natural habitat. First of all, you have to be incredibly patient. Most of these photographs took me many, many hours. Each individual photograph probably has a history of me following this animal for several hours. And the second requirement--you cannot be afraid to get really, really dirty, because what I don't like doing is to pick up the animal and position it so I can take a photograph more easily. What I rather do--what I would rather do is to basically crawl on my belly and kind of get myself to the level of this animal, because what I'm trying to do with my photography is not necessarily to make the animals appear larger. I want to kind of shrink and get to their level, to their dimensions and sort of perceive their world from their perspective.

FLATOW: So you must have to learn about the habits of every single one of these before you take their picture.

Dr. NASKRECKI: That's probably true. I--before I take any photograph, I try to learn something about the animals. Most of--probably very, very few of my photographs are a result of a sort of chance encounter with the animal. I usually go out knowing exactly what I'm looking for and knowing what type of animal or behavior I'm trying to photograph. And even if I find it, instead of whipping out the camera and trying to take pictures, I usually stand back and watch it for a while...


Dr. NASKRECKI: ...and learn how it reacts to me and how I can approach it without scaring it off.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to have to take a break, and we're going to come back and talk more with Piotr Naskrecki, author of "The Smaller Majority," and take a call or two, if we can. So stay with us. We'll be right back, talking about tiny little creatures this--so we'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking with author Piotr Naskrecki, whose new book "The Smaller Majority" is really such a beautiful book about insects and little creatures. And we have lots of people who'd like to talk about it.

Let's go to Linda in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Linda.

LINDA (Caller): Hi there.


LINDA: I have a question for the speaker, but--because I'm particularly interested in scorpions. I've had a lot of, shall we say, scorpion experiences in my life. And I know that the venom of scorpions has recently been found to be--or they're studying it for a treatment for I think it's heart disease. I can't exactly remember. But anyway, I'm particularly interested in whether or not other kinds of venomous creatures, if they've been--if they're finding that the venom is especially useful in different kinds of medical and medicine situations. And so I'm just interested...


LINDA: ...especially scorpion venom.

FLATOW: Yeah. Dr. Naskrecki?

Dr. NASKRECKI: Scorpions' venom have evolved specifically to target their prey. It's most effective on small animals such as insects. The main component of the scorpion venom is a substance called ardiscretin, which is a neurotoxin. It's a substance that affects your nervous system.

LINDA: Yeah.

Dr. NASKRECKI: So in small doses, such substances can act as very powerful stimulants. In larger doses, they can actually hurt you. But very small, controlled amount of the substance can probably act as a stimulant on the heart muscle. Interestingly enough, scorpions can help us in some other way with our health. You're probably aware--or maybe not--that scorpions can actually glow if exposed to the ultraviolet light. If you turn off...

LINDA: Right. Yeah.

Dr. NASKRECKI: ...a regular light and turn a UV, they kind of glow, either yellow or kind of bluish, beautiful glow.

LINDA: Yeah.

Dr. NASKRECKI: Now for the longest time we couldn't understand why that is and what the possible function of this glowing is. Well, it turns out that their body is covered with a substance called betacarboline. And the interesting property of betacarbolines is that they age, so when the scorpion is very young, a newly born scorpion or a scorpion that has just recently shed its skin, does not glow and only develops this ability as it ages. But it turns out that the chemistry of aging of these betacarbolines is virtually identical to the process that happen in human eye as we develop the cataracts. So by understanding...

LINDA: Interesting.

Dr. NASKRECKI: Yes. By understanding the chemistry of scorpions' glowing, and hopefully developing a technology that allows us to reverse this process, we might be able to actually find a cure for human blindness. So scorpions can actually be extremely beneficial to our health, both by producing these neurotoxins that can help us with heart disease, but also by hopefully helping us find the cure for blindness.

FLATOW: And that is part of the tragedy of the loss of all this biodiversity; apart from the animals themselves, the potential for other kinds of treatment we might find there.

Dr. NASKRECKI: That's absolutely right. We will never know what potential cures or technologies or designs we have already lost with all the species that are gone, but we should definitely invest more into studying every single organism that still remains on the planet, documenting it, because, indeed, we can find a lot of very, very useful data in their morphology and in their chemistry or even maybe behavior.

FLATOW: I want to than you for taking time to join us today, Dr. Naskrecki. It's a great book. And...

Dr. NASKRECKI: It was great talking to you.

FLATOW: And I'm sure you--it must have taken you forever to put this together with all those pictures. It's gorgeous.

Piotr Naskrecki is author of "The Smaller Majority." He is director of the Invertebrate Diversity Initiative at Conservation International and a research associate with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

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