Michael Hanson/Aurora Photos

Plants outweigh all other life on Earth

Plants pack more heft than any other kingdom of life on the planet, making up 80% of all the carbon stored in living creatures. That’s just one surprise in a comprehensive new survey of Earth’s biomass, which finds that groups with the greatest number of species—such as arthropods—aren’t necessarily the heaviest.

Archaea Viruses Bacteria Protists Fungi Animals Arthropods Molluscs Nematodes Annelids Wild birds Fish Wild Humans Livestock Cnidarians Kingdoms of life Animals Plants 450 GT C 0.1 0.1 0.06 mammals 0.007 0.7 0.002 0.2 0.02 0.2 1 GT C 2 12 4 70 0.2 8
N. Desai/Science

Measured in terms of carbon content (to factor out variable components like water), all life on Earth weighs about 550 gigatons. Of that, plants make up 450 gigatons of carbon (GT C), followed by bacteria at 70 GT C and fungi at 12 GT C, scientists report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Animals comprise a mere 2 GT C, of which half are arthropods—including insects, spiders, and crustaceans. And although humans weigh in at just 0.06 GT C—on par with krill and termites—our impact on biomass since the beginning of civilization has been huge, scientists say. Humans and their cattle, pigs, and other livestock outweigh wild mammals by more than 20-fold; similarly, domesticated fowl surpass all other birds. Humans have also had an impact on plant biomass, which has been cut in half in the past 10,000 years.

To figure out the biomass of each creature, quantitative biologists spent 3 years combing the scientific literature. But their ultimate goal wasn’t to figure out how much life weighs—it was to discover the most abundant protein on the planet. They’re still working on that question (subsurface microbes presented them with a particular challenge), but they hope to answer it within the coming year.