Field of Science

The Species-Scape Picture

This is probably one of the best demonstrations I've ever seen of the true diversity of organisms - in the picture above, representatives of various groups of organisms have been represented at sizes relative to the number of described species in that group. In case you're wondering where the mammals are, we're represented by the reindeer cowering underneath the mushroom.

I received this image from a work colleague - there are a couple of versions out there online that are obviously derived from the same source, but I don't know which is the original version. Contenders can be found at Cornell University and here.

Needless to say, this picture could change as our knowledge of the biosphere improves. The mammal and the bird are obviously too big, while the nematode and the fungus are two that I would expect to increase with time.

Update: Helen Schwencke has managed to establish that the first version of this image was by Quentin Wheeler and Frances Fawcett; see the comment thread below. Frances has supplied a copy of her original design:


  1. Yeah, rad concept but I'm dubious on the scaling. By my count the vert classes combined should be 50% or so of the limpet...assuming it's standing in for all molluscs, right? Then again I tallied on my fingers so perhaps I'm off a bit. In fact, isn't given each vert class its own avatar sort of a perpetuation of the whole taxonomic chauvinism that this diagram is supposed to challenge?

    gripe, gripe, gripe. But seriously, dude where's my chelicerate?

  2. Huh? The chelicerate's a bit hard to miss - it's the third biggest thing in the picture after the fly and the trees.

    From a quick Google search, it looks like molluscs have about 70,000 known species, chordates have about 60,000. So the verts combined should be a little less than the clam, which actually looks about right to me. The largest group of verts by far, of course, is represented by the fish.

    And yes, this does use a taxonomically chauvinistic division. But in the context of what it is demonstrating, I think that's really an appropriate division to use - demonstrating that people's ideas of the "important" divisions isn't really that accurate.

  3. Ha, first time I see this version with the big fly on it.

    The one with the beetle representing arthropods is an animated flash version of the original, done by illustrator Frances L. Fawcett and appearing in one of Q. D. Wheeler publications on biodiversity (unfortunately, I can't remember the citation right now).

    I wonder if the changes in the version you posted were made out of preference for different organism or to avoid copyright issues. I suspect that the one with the kangaroo representing mammals is some kind of Australian conspiracy...

  4. Doh!

    Somehow I mistook that tick for a crab...better get my eyes checked.

  5. In case you're wondering where the mammals are, we're represented by the reindeer cowering underneath the mushroom.

    I first thought the bird represented all vertebrates, and thought it looked a tad small ...

  6. Somehow I mistook that tick for a crab

    Actually, that raises a good point: where are all the Crustaceans?

  7. The crustaceans are missing. So are the myriapods. So (perhaps the most significant omission) are the bacteria, though the Cornell version linked to sneaks them in.

  8. Its from an introductory entomology textbook, can't remember the name.

  9. one way or another, nice drawing skills!

  10. It's proving very difficult to track down the source of the Cornell version, and sadly, your links are not viable anymore. I've tracked down a Q. Wheeler as the illustrator via an image used in a slide-share presentation:
    Is there a reason it's disappeared from view?
    I'm thinking of using it

  11. Thanks to your blog and the reply by one of your commentators mentioning the name of the original illustrator, Frances L Fawcett. I emailed her and she sent me a digitized copy of the original with the following comment she agreed I could share:

    "The illustration on the blog is one of the take-offs (artist unknown) of the original illustration that Quentin Wheeler and I developed. Quentin is the entomologist; I'm the artist. Several different versions were made and published by others to get around copyright laws. The irony is that Quentin was giving the illustration free to anyone who wanted to use it for educational purposes, so all anyone had to do was ask!

    The original version was pen and ink and published in The Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Nov., 1990.

    Subsequently I made this digital colored version ... I'm glad the Speciescape is still finding new audiences.


    unfortunately I can't see a way to attach the illustration she sent me to this reply, or otherwise post it.

    1. Thank you for forwarding the original through e-mail, Helen. I've added it to the post above.

  12. I wonder if life could survive without photosynthetic plants, only with a few number of species including some scavengers eating the corpses and their larvae feed the others ones (like on Dune's Arrakis); some say "why not?", but indeed the food chain, it's said that each level has need of ten times more food in order to have same quantum of energy because it decreases at each level, only photosynthesis bringing a full, over the top, energetic power, reduced at each level across digestion.. Is someone has some strong opinion about this hypothesis?


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