Who are the greatest Armchair Taxonomists? The winners announced!

Last month, we announced a challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life — a chance for happy mutants to simultaneously explore the wonders of nature and liberate some hard-to-access information into a more open format.

More than 100 of you sent in short descriptions of different plants, animals, fungi and protozoa. By and large, your contributions were really fantastic. Thanks to everyone who participated.

The team of EOL judges have narrowed the field down to the best entries in three categories: Corvi Zeman submitted the most entries; Jason Chen had the best references (and, not coincidentally, also wrote the most scholarly article); and Emma Cooper wrote the best overall entry.

Their subjects ended up being very plant-centric, but there's still a lot of diversity in these top entries. Read on to learn more about a delicious Middle Eastern herb, a carnivorous tropical plant, and a succulent that can survive and grow even underneath a layer of snow.

© 2010 Mike Ireland, CC-BY-NC

Corvi Zeman – Most Entries

Sample entry: Chinese Dunce Cap

Chinese Dunce Cap (Orostachys spinosa) is a slow-growing succulent (fleshy-leafed) plant in the family Crassulaceae. It is found in arid areas in Mongolia, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, and is remarkably hardy, thriving in temperatures as low as -40 degrees C (-40 F) and able to photosynthesize under a thin layer of snow. A fully-grown Chinese Dunce Cap resembles a sunflower head 10 cm (4 inches) across, with a flattened dome of spiral, tightly closed leaves surrounded by a ring of upright leaves. When the plant is mature, which takes about five years, it produces the conical flower stalk responsible for its common name and dies afterwards. Like other members of the Crassulaceae, O. spinosa copes with arid conditions by fixing carbon using the CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism) pathway: it keeps stomata on the leaves closed during the day to minimize evaporative water loss, but opens them at night to absorb carbon dioxide and store it for photosynthesis during the day. It is the most cold-tolerant CAM plant known. O. spinosa is used in Mongolian herbal medicine, as forage for livestock in winter, and in decorative rock gardens.

© Biopix: JK Overgaard, CC-BY-NC

Jason Chen – Best References and Most Scholarly

Nepenthes – Tropical pitcher plants

Nepenthes is a genus of tropical pitcher plants, ranging from Southeast Asia, its center of diversity, westward into the Seychelles and eastern Madagascar and south to Australia. Nepenthes is the most diverse group of carnivorous plants to have evolved sophisticated pitcher traps and the only genus in the family Nepenthaceae. As in other carnivorous plants, the adaptive value of carnivory is thought to lie in the acquisition of nitrogen in nitrogen-poor environments.

Pitchers grow on tendrils extending from the midribs of leaves and trap prey passively, collecting pools of water into which prey are lured (with bright colors and nectar secreted on the pitcher rim), drowned, and digested with no energetic active movement on the part of the plant. In some species a single plant may grow some pitchers that lie recumbent on the substrate and others that hang suspended in mid-air; this results in leaf dimorphism, in which ground pitchers are different in shape, size, and appearance from aerial pitchers. Though most prey are small nectarivorous insects, the largest Nepenthes species may produce pitchers capable of trapping small vertebrates such as lizards, rodents, and birds. A few species have evolved modifications of the prototypical pitcher morphology and behavior to collect leaf litter (N. ampullaria) or vertebrate droppings (N. lorii, N. rajah, N. macrophylla, and N. rafflesiana).

Phytotelmata, the pools collected in Nepenthes pitchers, provide unique habitats that can support not only opportunistic species but entire faunal communities. These unusual and specialized communities are analogous to the phytotelmata collected by tree holes and New World bromeliads. Not surprisingly, Nepenthes species potentially form many mutualistic and commensalistic interactions with animals in their native ranges. The small organisms associated with Nepenthes traps are known as nepenthephiles, and may consist of both opportunistic and specialized inhabitants; the nature of their relationships with other nepenthephiles and with the plant, and the costs and benefits for all participants is often unclear. The water itself contains a community of protozoa, invertebrates, and even tadpoles that feed on excess prey, undigested prey remains, or each other, and may aid the plant in digestion.

The small mutualistic ant Camponotus (Colobopsis) schmitzi lives in the hollowed-out leaf tendrils of N. calcarata, enhancing the plant's capture ability by protecting developing traps from herbivores, maintaining the slippery interior of the pitchers, and even swimming into the pools to subdue large prey. In exchange, the ants are provided with living space, prey, and nectar. Coprophagous (dung-eating) species lure small arboreal mammals with copious nectar or shelter; while feeding or roosting, the animals defecate or urinate into the pitcher. Small frogs, land crabs, and spiders may also take advantage of the insects and shelter afforded by the pitcher. Some Nepenthes species are known as 'monkey cups' because monkeys are known to drink the water in the pitchers.

Human interest in Nepenthes ranges from the utilitarian to the aesthetic. Its unique carnivorous habit and unusual and varied forms made the genus an object of fascination by early naturalists and a fashionable but difficult plant to rear in captivity, and the culture and study of Nepenthes by an active community of enthusiasts continues. The highly slippery wax surfaces of the pitcher interior have also inspired modern attempts at engineering similar materials. Today many species, some of which are already scarce and occur only in a few localities, are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and deterioration.

— And lets see those award-winning sources —

Slack, A. 1979. Carnivorous Plants. Cambridge: The MIT Press,. 74-87. Print.

Hewitt-Cooper, Nigel, Nigel. "A case of bird capture by a cultivated specimen of the hybrid Nepenthes X mixta." Carnivorous Plant Newsletter. 41.1 (2012): 31. Web. 20 May. 2013.

"Killer plant" BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 5 Aug 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.

Phillipps, A. "A Second Record of Rats as Prey in Nepenthes rajah." Carnivorous Plant Newsletter. 17.2 (1988): 55. Web.

Greenwood, M., Charles Clarke, Ch'ien C. Lee, et al. "A Unique Resource Mutualism between the Giant Bornean Pitcher Plant, Nepenthes rajah, and Members of a Small Mammal Community." PLOS ONE. 6.6 (2011): n. page. Web.

Pavlovic, Andrej, Ľudmila Slovakova, and Jiri Santrucek. "Nutritional benefit from leaf litter utilization in the pitcher plant Nepenthes ampullaria." Plant, Cell & Environment. 34.11 (2011): 1865-1873. Web. 20 May. 2013.

Clarke, Charles, Jonathan A. Moran, and Lijin Chin. "Mutualism between tree shrews and pitcher plants." Plant Signaling & Behavior. 5.10 (2010): 1187-1189. Web. 20 May. 2013.
Moran, Jonathan A., Charles Clarke, Melinda Greenwood, et al. "Tuning of color contrast signals to visual sensitivity maxima of tree shrews by three Bornean highland Nepenthes species." Plant Signaling & Behavior. 7.10 (2012): 1267-1270. Web.

Rembold, Katja, Eberhard Fischer, Boris F. Striffler, et al. "Crab spider association with the Malagasy pitcher plant Nepenthes madagascariensis." African Journal of Ecology. 51.1 (2012): 188-191. Web.

Grafe, T. Ulmar, Caroline R. Schöner, Gerald Kerth, et al. "A novel resource–service mutualism between bats and pitcher plants." Biology Letters. 7.3 (2011): 436-439. Web. 20 May. 2013.

Thornham, Daniel G., Joanna M. Smith, T. Ulmar Grafe, et al. "Setting the trap: cleaning behaviour of Camponotus schmitzi ants increases long-term capture efficiency of their pitcher plant host, Nepenthes bicalcarata." Functional Ecology. 26.1 (2012): 11-19. Web.

Moran, Jonathan A., Gilles Le Moguedec, David J. Marshall, et al. "A Carnivorous Plant Fed by Its Ant Symbiont: A Unique Multi-Faceted Nutritional Mutualism." PLOS ONE. 7.5 (2012): n. page. Web. 20 May. 2013.

© Bibliotheca Alexandrina, CC-BY-NC-SA

And finally, the best of the bunch:

Emma Cooper – Best Overall Entry


Zatar (Origanum syriacum), also known as Syrian Oregano or Bible Hyssop, is an herbaceous perennial in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. A bushy herb, it grows 30-40 cm (12-16 inches) high, with oblong-ovate and slightly hairy leaves that are 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) long. It produces white flowers in spring and is very aromatic. A native of the Mediterranean, Zatar is indispensable in Lebanese cuisine and is used medicinally. Some Bible scholars believe zatar to be the 'hyssop' mentioned in the Bible. As Zatar is an Arabic word, it is translated into English with varying spellings (including za'tar, za'atar and zahtar). This common name is also used to refer to other plant species in the Laminaceae such as Satureja thymbra, Thymbra spicata and Coridothymus (Thymus) capitatus. all of which share a similar flavour profile and are used in the same ways. Zatar is the most economically important wild plant in Lebanon, where it grows wild in the mountains. As tons are harvested and consumed every year, it has recently been brought into cultivation. Used fresh or dried and crushed, zatar is a popular culinary herb and is used in the production of mankouche flatbread. A popular seasoning throughout the Middle East, zatar is transformed into the eponymous spice mix via the addition of sumac, sesame seeds and salt and pepper. Recipes vary, and a distinctly Palestinian variant replaces the sesame with caraway seeds.

Emma will be getting a behind the scenes tour of the Smithsonian's Natural Museum of Natural History, Jason will be receiving a mini-library of great science books, and Corvi will take home a new bluetooth keyboard.

Thanks again, to everyone who participated.

Design and Layout: Rob Beschizza