All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic
All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic
Our planet supports approximately 8.7 million species, of which over a quarter live in water.
But humans can have a hard time comprehending numbers this big, so it can be difficult to really appreciate the breadth of this incredible diversity of life on Earth.
In order to fully grasp this scale, we draw from research by Bar-On et al. to break down the total composition of the living world, in terms of its biomass, and where we fit into this picture.
A “carbon-based life form” might sound like something out of science fiction, but that’s what we and all other living things are.
Carbon is used in complex molecules and compounds—making it an essential part of our biology. That’s why biomass, or the mass of organisms, is typically measured in terms of carbon makeup.
In our visualization, one cube represents 1 million metric tons of carbon, and every thousand of these cubes is equal to 1 Gigaton (Gt C).
Here’s how the numbers stack up in terms of biomass of life on Earth:
|Taxon||Mass (Gt C)||% of total|
Plants make up the overwhelming majority of biomass on Earth. There are 320,000 species of plants, and their vital photosynthetic processes keep entire ecosystems from falling apart.
Fungi is the third most abundant type of life—and although 148,000 species of fungi have been identified by scientists, it’s estimated there may be millions more.
Animals: A Drop in the Biomass Ocean
Although animals make up only 0.47% of all biomass, there are many sub-categories within them that are worth exploring further.
|Taxon||Mass (Gt C)||% of Animal Biomass|
Arthropods are the largest group of invertebrates, and include up to 10 million species across insects, arachnids, and crustaceans.
The category of chordates includes wild mammals, wild birds, livestock, humans, and fish. Across 65,000 living species in total, nearly half are bony fish like piranhas, salmon, or seahorses.
Surprisingly, humans contribute a relatively small mass compared to the rest of the Animal Kingdom. People make up only 0.01% of all the biomass on the planet.
Annelids, Mollusks, Cnidarians, and Nematodes
Annelids are segmented worms like earthworms or leeches, with over 22,000 living species on this planet. After arthropods, mollusks are the second-largest group of invertebrates with over 85,000 living species. Of these, 80% are snails and slugs.
Cnidarians are a taxon of aquatic invertebrates covering 11,000 species across various marine environments. These include jellyfish, sea anemone, and even corals.
Nematodes are commonly referred to as roundworms. These sturdy critters have successfully adapted to virtually every kind of ecosystem, from polar regions to oceanic trenches. They’ve even survived traveling into space and back.
The Microscopic Rest
Beyond these animals, plants, and fungi, there are an estimated trillion species of microbes invisible to the naked eye—and we’ve probably only discovered 0.001% of them so far.
Bacteria were one of the first life forms to appear on Earth, and classified as prokaryotes (nucleus-less). Today, they’re the second-largest composition of biomass behind plants. Perhaps this is because these organisms can be found living literally everywhere—from your gut to deep in the Earth’s crust.
Researchers at the University of Georgia estimate that there are 5 nonillion bacteria on the planet—that’s a five with 30 zeros after it.
Protists and Archaea
Protists are mostly unicellular, but are more complex than bacteria as they contain a nucleus. They’re also essential components of the food chain.
Archaea are single-celled microorganisms that are similar to bacteria but differ in compositions. They thrive in extreme environments too, from high temperatures above 100°C (212°F) in geysers to extremely saline, acidic, or alkaline conditions.
Viruses are the most fascinating category of biomass. They have been described as “organisms at the edge of life,” as they are not technically living things. They’re much smaller than bacteria—however, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, their microscopic effects cannot be understated.
The Earth’s Biomass, Under Threat
Human activities are having an ongoing impact on Earth’s biomass.
For example, we’ve lost significant forest cover in the past decades, to make room for agricultural land use and livestock production. One result of this is that biodiversity in virtually every region is on the decline.
Will we be able to reverse this trajectory and preserve the diversity of all the biomass on Earth, before it’s too late?
Editor’s note: This visualization was inspired by the work of Javier Zarracina for Vox from a few years ago. Our aim with the above piece was to recognize that while great communication needs no reinvention, it can be enhanced and reimagined to increase editorial impact and help spread knowledge to an even greater share of the population.
Visualizing the Biomass of All the World’s Mammals
When the world’s biomass—the stuff we’re made of—is tallied up, humans and cattle outweigh wild mammals by a massive margin.
Visualizing the Biomass of All the World’s Mammals
Even as we understand more about the world we live in, certain aspects of it remain undefined or hard to comprehend.
One such example is in the scale and distribution of Earth’s life. What’s the ratio of wild to domesticated animals? How much do all of the world’s humans weigh?
Until recently, such questions were nearly unanswerable. A new report titled The Global Biomass of Wild Mammals helps shed more light on the composition and scale of life on our planet. The research provides an estimate of the biomass of all mammals, globally—including humans.
So, What is Biomass Anyway?
Biomass is simply the weight of living things.
In this study, researchers
created rough estimates for four major categories of mammals: humans, domesticated animals, and those that were found in wild terrestrial and marine environments. A further breakdown of mammal groups are found within each category.
To achieve this, they took the estimated number of species from census data and multiplied it with each species’ average body mass.
One component worth pointing out is that animals contribute very different amounts to the world’s biomass total. For example, whales significantly outweigh rodents in terms of biomass, even though there are fewer species and populations of whales. The fact that whales are so much larger than rodents means that even smaller populations can contribute a meaningful portion to overall biomass.
Mammalian Biomass, Organized Neatly
Each larger cube above represents 20 million metric tons of carbon, and the entirety of the visualization represents all living mammalian life on Earth.
The paper separates mammals into four distinct categories:
|Category||Total Mass (Mt)||Top Sub-Category|
|Domesticated Mammals||651||Cattle (416 Mt)|
|Wild Marine Mammals||40||Baleen Whales (23 Mt)|
|Wild Terrestrial Mammals||24||Even-Hoofed Mammals (11 Mt)|
One of the most obvious takeaways from this data is that humans make up one-third of total mammalian biomass.
Perhaps even more strikingly, the animals we’ve domesticated for food, companionship, and labor make up close to 60% of the total weight of Earth’s mammals. Domesticated dogs and cats alone equal the total weight of all other wild land mammals combined.
The world’s sheep, on their own, weigh as much as all the whales and seals in the ocean. Domesticated buffalo such as the water buffalo, a species commonly found in Asia, combine to have the third largest biomass of all mammals.
Finally, there’s one category of mammal that comes way out on top.
The global livestock population has risen along with the human population, and cattle are now the top mammal in the world by weight.
In fact, just the United States’ share of cattle matches the biomass of all wild mammals on Earth.
As the standard of living continues to rise for people around the world, beef consumption has been increasing in many developing countries. Of course, raising cattle is a resource and land intensive operation, and there have been very real impacts on a global scale. For one, cows are a major source of methane emissions. As well, in Brazil, which accounts for around 25% of the world’s cattle population, pasture has directly replaced large swaths of rainforest habitat.
At the very bottom of the visualization, dwarfed by humans and domesticated mammals, lies the vast array of wild mammals that live on planet Earth.
It’s sobering to see that the biomass of North America’s human population alone compares closely with that of all terrestrial wild mammals in the world. This includes plentiful creatures like rats and mice, as well as large mammals like elephants and bears.
Below are the top 10 wild mammalian contributors to biomass in the natural world.
|Rank||Contributor||Total Mass (Mt)||Individuals (millions)|
|#4T||Antarctic Minke Whales||3||0.5|
In the ocean, whales and seals are the heavyweight champions. On land, deer, and boar come out on top as they are both heavy and plentiful.
Humans have a complicated relationship with large mammals. We feel a very clear connection to these creatures, and they are often the key figures in conservation efforts. That said, even small populations of humans have wiped out large mammal species in the past.
The news that cattle outweigh wild land animals by a factor of 20:1 is a reminder that human influence is perhaps even more powerful than we think.
The more we’re exposed to nature’s full splendor […] the more we might be tempted to imagine that nature is an endless and inexhaustible resource. In reality, the weight of all remaining wild land mammals is less than 10% of humanity’s combined weight. – Ron Milo, Professor of Systems Biology
Source: The global biomass of wild mammals
Data notes: To come up with the numbers above, scientists estimated the total biomass of wild mammals on Earth by manually collecting population estimates for 392 land mammal species, which make up about 6% of all wild land mammal species, and using machine learning to infer the global populations of the remaining 94%. Their estimate includes 4,805 wild land mammal species out of approximately 6,400 known and extant wild land mammal species, excluding low-abundance species for which data are scarce.
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