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Orchids set guide for health of preserve

The Tampa butterfly is not an insect. It's a small orchid with an important role: acting as a barometer for the health of wetlands in the Brooker Creek Preserve.

"This orchid seems to be extremely sensitive to hydrological conditions of the wetlands in the preserve," said Craig Huegel, manager of the preserve in northeast Pinellas County. "They can give us a good readout on whether we are improving the environmental quality of our wetlands."

Huegel is leading an intensive study of the Tampa butterfly orchid. It isn't always easy.

Huegel and volunteers helping with the study must slog around in waist-deep, smelly swampwater. They must trudge through thick mud that threatens to suck the boots from their feet. Sometimes, in order to keep check on the orchids, Huegel must winch his truck out of bogs.

It is necessary to endure those conditions because the Tampa butterfly grows on trees _ mostly black gum trees _ in areas that have standing water. About half of the 8,000-acre preserve is under water all or most of the year.

There are other plants and animals that could be studied, Huegel said, but "this orchid stuck out as the best of them in terms of studying wetlands. It's similar to taking a canary into a mine to see if there are dangerous gases."

The base-line data being gathered by Huegel and three volunteers will be used to learn two things: what habitat conditions are needed for the orchid to thrive, and how the land management of the preserve can affect the orchid. Later phases of the long-term study will measure changes in the habitat and the orchids.

The basic purpose of the study is not to ensure the preservation of the orchid, because it is not an endangered species. Rather, Huegel said, it is to use the orchid to measure the health of the wetlands.

"It can tell us the direction our land-management program is taking in ways that we can't detect otherwise," he said. "It might take us five years to otherwise visually see the effects of what we are doing."

There are perhaps 30,000 species of orchids in the world, but only about nine of them grow in the Brooker Creek Preserve. The Tampa butterfly orchid, however, is the only one of the nine that is epiphytic, meaning that it doesn't grow in soil, but on other plants.

Tampa Bay is just about the northern limit of the orchid. It grows farther south in Florida and in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean, sometimes under other names.

Orchids are plants with showy three-petal flowers, with the middle petal enlarged into a lip. The most beautiful species are considered among the world's most exotic and finest flowers.

Huegel said the Tampa butterfly "is not among the world's showiest orchids, but it looks pretty and smells nice." Each flower is about an inch in diameter. The outer sepals are greenish brown and the inner petals are white with a little green and a big violet spot on the lip.

Most of the orchids grow low on the trees, but above the high-water mark. Huegel theorized that this is because the standing water provides heat for them during otherwise killing freezes. The plants get their nutrients from leaves and other debris that get caught in their bulbs and flowers.

Huegel said he and the study volunteers _ Jeanne Johnson and Barb Roller of East Lake and Matt Bray, an intern from Dunedin High School _ are "marking" the orchids by recording the latitude and longitude of their host trees with help from a geographic positioning satellite, which can pinpoint a position on the earth's surface within 3 feet.

In addition, they are recording such data as the size of the trees, the height of the orchids and the sides (north, east, southwest, etc., by degrees) of the trees where the orchids are located.

In each succeeding year of the study, this information will be gathered again to see what changes _ for better or worse _ have occurred since the base-line data were acquired.

One thing Huegel says he will be watching is the effect on the orchids as man-made ruts and ditches are filled and other measures are taken to try to restore the natural surface flow of water into the wetlands.

"We could sit back and look out on the woods and say this is a pretty place," he said. "But our big goal is to be effective land stewards and take care of this place and protect its environment for the long term.

"We need to understand as much as possible what impacts we are having on this piece of land."