Variety is the spice of life and taxonomy is the science we use to understand that seasoning. Taxonomists describe and organize the billions of living things on this planet, creating vast collections of information that help us understand how all life on Earth is connected. Their work has been the basis of medical breakthroughs, lead to the great discoveries of ecology, and opened our eyes to the wonders of evolution. Taxonomy even plays a role in how you and I think about the things that live in our own backyards.

Trouble is, a lot of that information is hidden behind paywalls or scattered across random sources where the general public can't easily get to it.

That's where you come in.

The Encyclopedia of Life is hosting a challenge. The goal: bring information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria to the world. Readers are asked to research and write short descriptions of some of nature's most fascinating species. Those descriptions will be reviewed by curators for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Life — a crowd-created, open-source effort to make scientific information about the world we live in available to all the people who live in it. And here's the kicker: the best descriptions will earn their writers a place in history — a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is up for grabs.

Humans have probably been naming things and making lists since our earliest ancestors began to separate "Stuff That Tastes Good" from "Stuff That Killed That Other Guy That One Time". But taxonomy, as we know it today, really began in the 18th-century, when Carl Linnaeus started assigning Latin names to different plants and animals and organizing them into a hierarchy where humans (the obvious pinnacle of creation) lorded over the rest of of the Earth.

We think about species (and, really, taxonomy itself) very differently today. But we still use a lot of pieces left over from Linnaeus' organizational structure — grouping living things into kingdoms, phylums, classes, orders, families, genera, and species. Taken altogether, those different groups are called taxa. Primates are an order and a taxon. Hominids are a family, and a taxon. Homo is a genus, and also a taxon. Homo sapiens is a species ... and, yes, still a taxon.

For this project, your help describing different taxa is required.

What To Do

Readers pick the taxon they like the best (the Encyclopedia of Life has a list of suggested taxa that can help one get started). Then it's time to hunt down credible sources; a look around online or a visit to the local library may be in order. Either way, you'll use the information to write a short summary of what makes a taxon tick — where does it live, what does it look like, and what does it need to survive? — is the objective, using original language and a style that general readers would enjoy. Don't worry about writing the Great American Taxonomic Description; all the Encyclopedia needs is a paragraph or two. Somewhere between 300 and 500 words should do it. (Check out the entry form for guidelines and some great examples.)

All entries will have to have at least two sources. Wikipedia is a good place to start looking for sources, but its preferable not to be a primary source itself. For one thing, the temptation to cut-paste must be avoided. For another, it's best to find stuff that isn't already easily available ... and Wikipedia is kind of the definition of easily available.

Good sources: University websites or the personal websites of scientists who study that plant or animal; peer-reviewed journal articles; books; websites for zoos, aquariums, or conservation organizations; specialty encyclopedias, such as The New Encyclopedia of Mammals published by Oxford University Press; educational documentaries, like what you’d see on NOVA or the BBC; magazine articles (interviews with experts are especially helpful!).

Sources to avoid: Fan sites put together by people who aren’t experts; any information that, itself, isn’t sourced; message boards; publications more than 30 years old (the information may be inaccurate because it’s out of date); works of fiction or religious tracts.

The finished descriptions will be part of the Encyclopedia of Life. It's a lot like writing for Wikipedia, only more specialized. The Encyclopedia of Life will eventually become a place where anybody can find basic information about all the other forms of life that share our home planet. Nobody has to pay. Everything is Creative Commons licensed. By participating, you're helping to move information from places where it might be hard for the average person to find, to places where that same information can be freely and quickly accessed.

Who Can Enter

Anybody over the age of 13. Those younger than that, though, can still participate, they just need an adult co-author.

How To Enter

It's super-easy. Just visit the entry form site. Entries are sent directly through that form, and the site has a bunch of great resources and tips — including writing guidelines and examples of descriptions already published on the Encyclopedia of Life.

Readers have until May 20th to enter. And they can enter as many different descriptions as they want.


All of the entries will be judged by a team of science writers, scientists, and editors from the Encyclopedia of Life, who'll be making selections in three categories.

Best Sources: A mini-library of awesome, recently published science books, hand-picked by me and mailed to the recipient's door. Good at finding cool tidbits of information in unexpected places? The min-library could be yours. People who can bring information from books and other print resources to the web, and who show some serious dedication to making sure that their work is both accurate and intriguing. Citing Wikipedia won't help you. You've got to dig deeper than that.

Most Descriptions: An Apple Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard. If you have the time and inclination to turn out a bunch of well-written, well-researched entries, then you might stand a chance. Remember, we're looking for quality, not just quantity. This works with all Apple products (obviously), but it also works with Windows 7-powered PCs. Use it as part of your standing or walking desk work space, or just to make tablets a little less obnoxious.

Best Overall Description: A private, behind-the-scenes tour at the Smithsonian. One reader will get to go backstage at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, to meet scientists and see collections that aren't available to the public. If you can get to Washington DC on your own, the tour (led by an EOL staffer) can be in person. If not, there's a great virtual setup that will allow you to have a fantastic, live, personal experience from the comfort of your living room. To stand a chance, everything counts: the entry has to be well-researched. It needs to include a fact or two worthy of sharing with friends. And the writing needs to make us go, "Wow."

Got Questions? Want To Know More About Taxonomy?

Post questions in the comments.

Check out our weekly series on taxonomy and speciation:
• Part 1: Leeches are a hypothesis: Why it's so hard to say what a species really is

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Design and Layout: Rob Beschizza