Advertisement
  1. Environment

Ghost orchid photos are first to show pollination — and a surprise about who's spreading the pollen

The first-ever photo showing a rustic sphinx month (Manduca rustica) probing and likely pollinating a ghost orchid bloom, in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. It was previously thought only one species pollinated these flowers: the giant sphinx moth. [Courtesy of Cartlon Ward Jr.]
Published Jul. 13

In Florida, the land of flowers, no bloom is more famous than the rare and bewitching ghost orchid, featured in both the bestselling book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and the movie Adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper.

Most of the year the ghost orchid looks like a green lump on the side of a tree. But when it blooms, the flower "resembles the ghoulish ghost of a frog leaping in mid-air," one orchid expert wrote. "Should one be lucky enough to see a flower, all else will seem eclipsed."

No more than about 2,000 of them remain in Florida, mostly in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge east of Naples. They are so entrancing that park officials have had to post security cameras to discourage people from imitating the title character in The Orchid Thief, who swiped three but was caught.

For years orchid experts believed the ghost orchid — Dendrophylax lindenii to scientists — was pollinated by one remarkable insect, the night-flying Giant Sphinx Moth, which appeared to be the only moth with the right-sized equipment to access that deep part of the flower. It turns out they were wrong.

Photos shot by Tampa wildlife photographer Carlton Ward Jr. at the panther refuge show the ghost orchid yielding its pollen to five different moths — and not one of them was a Giant Sphinx Moth.

Mark Danaher, the senior wildlife biologist at the panther refuge, called the photos "remarkable."

"What's really cool is this is the first photo of pollination" of the ghost orchid, he said. Finding out that long-held assumptions are wrong is the icing on top.

Ward, the great-grandson of a Florida governor, is best known for his work with the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. He said he didn't set out to stalk wild ghost orchids. He had moved into a trailer at the refuge as part of a new project called "Path of the Panther," which involves him planting motion-activated trap cameras designed to capture images of the elusive state animal.

Visiting scientists told him about their study of the ghost orchid, so he tagged along, he said. A refuge employee was putting out a trap camera hoping to snap images of the flower being pollinated, but Carlton realized it wasn't nearly as high-quality as the cameras he had. So he put out one of his laser-activated ones.

His camera didn't capture anything, which just made Ward more determined. He put out more cameras, and became obsessed with getting orchid shots.

"This became a weekly ritual," Ward said. "I would drive my ATV out into the swamp until I couldn't go any deeper, and then I would get on my stand-up paddle board and go about two to three miles deeper (into the refuge) to check my cameras."

Finally, he got a series of photos of moths swarming around ghost orchid blooms — but they didn't look quite right to him. Ward showed them to a scientist named Pete Houlihan who has been studying ghost orchids for seven years and asked if he'd captured pictures of the Giant Sphinx Moth pollinating the flower.

No, Houlihan said, these are different kinds of moths. Ward was disappointed, until Houlihan explained that he'd made a scientific breakthrough.

"I was shocked," Houlihan said of seeing the photos. "It kind of blew my mind."

Meanwhile, a South Carolina photographer working with Houlihan at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Mac Stone, had gotten photos of a Giant Sphinx Moth drinking nectar from a ghost orchid 50 feet off the ground in a tree — but it apparently did not come into contact with any pollen. Houlihan said that may mean the moth is, as he put it "the real orchid thief" because it takes nectar from the flower and gives nothing back in return.

Shawn Clem, the research director at Corkscrew Swamp, said that having multiple moths pollinating the ghost orchid is a hopeful sign for the flower's continued existence.

"Look at how insect populations are declining worldwide," she said. "Knowing that we're not dependant on just one species to pollinate this flower is good. It's a way to hedge our bets."

Mike Owen, a Fakahatchee Strand biologist who makes a memorable appearance in The Orchid Thief, sounded downright giddy about what Ward's photos showed, namely that the rarest orchid in North America survives because of the help from multiple, fairly common moths.

"It just shows you," he said, "how complicated life gets."

Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A citrus grove in eastern Hillsborough County. [Times (2017)]
    The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is predicting a 3.3 percent increase for the struggling industry.
  2. Emissions from cars and trucks are a major source of the greenhouse gases fueling climate change. An analysis by the New York Times found that air pollution from those sources has increased in the Tampa Bay area by 55 percent since 1990. [Times (2008)]
    Florida once had emissions inspections, but Jeb Bush ended them in 2000
  3. Recent sunny day flooding in Shore Acres, a St. Petersburg neighborhood vulnerable to rising sea levels. [Times] Susan Taylor Martin
    The organizations will explore the impact of climate change on Florida.
  4. Kreshae Humphrey, 26, bathes her daughter, Nevaeh Soto De Jesus, 3, inside of a baby bath tub in the middle of their living room. The parents bathe all three of their girls with bottled water because they believe the children were sickened by the tap water at the Southern Comfort mobile home park off U.S. 19 in Clearwater. The family is suing the park's owner over the issue, but the owner and the state say there are no problems with the drinking water there. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    The owner of Southern Comfort denies there are problems with the drinking water. But the park is still being shut down. All families must be out by Oct. 31.
  5.  Designed by Tara McCarty
    The city will spend it on the boardwalk, trail and other improvements.
  6. In 1995, Florida imported eight female Texas cougars and released them into the wild to breed with male panthers. Five successfully produced kittens that were free of the genetic defects that had been plaguing the purebred panthers. This 1995 photo depicts the release of one of the female Texas cougars. [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] . Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
    Next they hope to use it to see how breeding panthers with Texas cougars affected the panthers’ DNA
  7. Richard Sajko of Valrico, FL talks about how he killed one of the two bears on the back of his pickup truck at the first Florida Black Bear hunt in 21 years at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary Florida. 
(Saturday, October 24, 2015.) [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
    The 2015 hunt, the first in 21 years, caused so much controversy that wildlife officials put off deciding about another one until now
  8. FILE - This May 19, 2008, file photo shows a Kirtland's warbler, an endangered songbird that lives in the jack pine forests of northern Michigan, near Mio, Mich. More than a half-century after declaring the Kirtland's warbler endangered, the federal government Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, said the small, yellow-bellied songbird had recovered and was being dropped from its list of protected species. JOHN FLESHER  |  AP
    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service credited teamwork among numerous agencies and nonprofit groups with the survival of the warbler.
  9. Workers tighten a fitting on the bypass sewer pipe. Tampa Bay Times
    The city is considering an ordinance that would require property owners repair or replace broken sewer lines if the city discovers a problem. City officials are working on a rebate program to help...
  10. The group Extinction Rebellion staged the protest Monday at the bull statue near Wall Street, at the foot of Broadway. One protester waving a green flag climbed on top of the bull. Photo from video/Associated Press
    The group Extinction Rebellion staged the protest Monday at the bull statue. One protester waving a green flag climbed on top of the bull.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement