Orchid Conservation and Research


July 2015 - Conserving the Ghost of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

New Relations Lead to Better Understanding of South Florida’s Ghost Orchids

While annual orchid research on Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge has enhanced science and conservation for native orchid species, the orchid cohort is especially excited to be collaborating with Dr. Ernesto Mujico of Cuba’s Ministry of Science ECOVIDA Research Center this year in order to conduct a comprehensive survey for one of the most unique orchids in North America, the ghost orchid. Dr. Mujica is an incredible addition to the orchid research collaboration, and would not have been possible without years of persistence and the recent, history-making improvements in US relations with Cuba.

Dr. Lawrence W. Zettler of Illinois College first met Dr. Mujica at the 4th Andean Orchid Conference where each party presented research on South Florida and Cuba’s ghost orchids, respectively. During a lunchtime chat at the conference, Dr. Zettler was very surprised to learn that the orchid’s habitat in Cuba was very different from South Florida. Dr. Zettler remembers “I was frustrated the embargo would not allow me to freely enter Cuba to see his orchid sites, and I remember joking about figuring out some way to get to Cuba.” What could have been a passing conversation led to a written invitation from Dr. Mujica and Dr. Zettler’s first trip to Cuba in 2013. A few months after Dr. Zettler’s first trip, a group of Illinois College professors took about 18 students to Cuba on an academic trip, which included a trip to Guanahacabibes National Park, Dr. Mujica’s ghost orchid research site on the Western tip of the island. Dr. Zettler reported that one student, Kavita Patel, studied the ghost orchid in South Florida the summer before then also got to see the ghost orchid at the Cuban sites. “To my knowledge, she may be the first US college student to ever see the South Florida and Cuban ghost orchids in flower, at least in the same year.”

After two long years of waiting for Dr. Mujica’s U.S. visa, which included enlisting the help of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s office and Illinois College President Dr. Barbara Farley, Dr. Mujica has finally made it into the swamps of south Florida. All involved with the ghost orchid project are especially grateful to the members of the Naples Orchid Society and Kit Kitchen-Maran for providing Dr. Mujica with the funding for his trip to the US. While spending the month of July on FPNWR, Dr. Mujico has helped document ghost orchids at various locations on the Refuge and is working with students Shannon Skarha and Justin Mably to create geo-spatial databases for long-term monitoring. This work parallels the techniques Dr. Mujico uses to monitor ghost orchid populations in Cuba, which has resulted in in excellent published papers and vital conservation efforts. “In the future we hope to compare ghost orchid populations in southwest Florida to those in Cuba as a means of better understanding the species’ specific habitat requirements and needs for continued survival” explains Dr. Zettler. This groundbreaking research will have long-lasting effects throughout southwest Florida, and is critical for the successful reintroduction and establishment of native orchids. This work is also setting a new standard for the kind of conservation advancements that can be a major victory for science as Cuba and the U.S. continue improving their international relations. “This partnership between Dr. Mujica, ECOVIDA, Illinois College, and FPNWR nicely illustrates how cooperation between our two countries may help at least one rare species in peril” Dr. Zettler summarized.

Dendrophylax lindenii, a.k.a. the ghost orchid, is a leafless epiphyte orchid consisting of large masses of photosynthetic roots, anchored to pond apple, pop ash and cypress trees. It is perhaps the most revered orchid in the United States, because it is such a rare and fascinating sight to see a ghost orchid in bloom. Nobody really knows how many ghost orchids there are, although it is estimated that only 2,000 individual plants reside in vast wetlands South Florida. Of these, approximately 5 to 10% bloom each year, and of those, only about 10% are assumed to be pollinated by Cocytius antaeus, the giant sphinx moth. Before Dr. Mujica’s arrival, we had only cataloged 11 ghost orchids on the Florida Panther NWR. With the help of Dr. Mujica, researchers this summer made a concerted effort to search and inventory more Orchids on the refuge and were able to find, identify and catalog 80+ new ghost orchids.

Funding for this partnership has come from a variety of sources including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Naples Botanical Garden, Naples Zoo, and the Naples Orchid Society, which has repeatedly provided scholarships to the undergraduate researchers of Illinois College.

See the full media release here.
The interest in conserving native orchid species began in 1990 when Dr. Robert Read, a retired Smithsonian botanist living in Naples, visited Refuge headquarters.  With only a staff of three employees and established for less than a year, we gradually became acquainted with Dr. Read and the wealth of Orchidaceae that capture the interest of many Floridians.  Americorps interns conducted surveys for orchids in 1996 through 1997. A grant was received in 1999 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to begin research and build a laboratory facility at the Refuge Field Office.  Since then, the Orchid Conservation Program became a partnership with the University of Florida with Dr. Mike Kane of the Department of Environmental Horticulture and Dr. Larry Zettler with Illinois College.  Through these two professors, and a stream of undergraduate and graduate students, we conducted investigations on orchid plant ecology, biology, propagation, and pollination biology.  This conservation partnership has begun to establish effective and efficient means of orchid conservation using the orchid flora at the Refuge as model systems.  The techniques being perfected here have already made the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Refuge, University of Florida and Illinois College leaders in the conservation and propagation of North American native orchid species.  No other conservation program currently exists in the United States that combines a proactive and integrated approach to species-level orchid conservation with the expertise of conservation practitioners and researchers.  The research and implemented practices of this conservation partnership are being closely watched by orchid experts around the world, including those with established orchid conservation programs in Australia and the United Kingdom.

North America possesses approximately 250 unique species of both epiphytic and terrestrial orchids, with Florida having about 120 of those species.  Florida native orchids are faced with a constant threat of habitat alteration from agriculture and development, exotic plant invasion, poaching, and other adverse impacts to the ecosystem.  While no Florida native orchid is federally listed as endangered or threatened, most Florida orchid species are State-listed as threatened or endangered and face the possibility of extinction if conservation and recovery plans are not investigated and instituted.  The imminent extinction of Florida native orchids may also negatively impact populations and distributions of insect pollinators common among these species.

Learn more about the research conducted on the refuge.