Researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia, who studied the body sizes of Earth’s living organisms, found that the planet’s biomass the material that makes up all living organisms is concentrated in organisms at both ends of the size spectrum.
The researchers spent five years compiling and analyzing data on the size and biomass of every type of living organism on the planet from tiny single celled organisms like soil archaea and bacteria to large organisms like blue whales and sequoias.
They found that the pattern favoring large and small organisms held true for all species types and was more pronounced for organisms on land than in marine environments. Interestingly, maximum body size appeared to reach the same upper limits in multiple species and environments.
“Trees, grasses, underground fungi, mangroves, corals, fish and marine mammals all have similar maximum body sizes. This could indicate that there is a universal upper size limit due to ecological, evolutionary or biophysical constraints,” says lead author Eden Tekwa, a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and now a research fellow in McGill University’s Department of Biology.
“Life continues to amaze us, including the incredible range of sizes it comes in,” says co-author Malin Pinsky, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers University. “If the smallest microbe were the size of the period at the end of this sentence, the largest living organism, the redwood tree, would be the size of the Panama Canal.”
“When it comes to humans, we already know that we make up a relatively small biomass, but our size among all living things reveals our place in the global biome. We belong to the size range that includes the highest biomass, which is a relatively large body size,” says Tekwa.
Anticipating the impacts of climate change
Cataloging which body sizes are most common is a key step in understanding the world around us, the authors say. These results also have important implications for predicting the impacts of climate change and human activity on the planet’s biomass.
“For example, fish biomass is probably half of what it was before humans arrived, but it’s getting harder and harder to infer these patterns as we go further back in time,” says Tekwa. “We need to think about how the distribution of body-size biomass changes under environmental pressures.”
Written by: Vaishali verma
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