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

Tampa nature photographer Carlton Ward Jr. uses trap cameras to snap photos showing something scientists didn't expect
Published July 12
Updated July 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.

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