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Ghosts of the Swamp or The Real Orchid Thief


Photo © Mac Stone


In a state of 20 million people traversed with crowded highways through metastasizing cities like Miami, Orlando, and Jacksonville, you would think there aren’t too many stones left unturned or corners left unexplored. But Florida is unique, still rebelliously rough and wild on the fringe, a fringe oddly found in the interior. And in those dark sodden corners are mysteries we’re still unravelling.


Photo © Mac Stone


One mystery that has haunted scientists and naturalists for generations surrounds the pollination of the legendary and endangered ghost orchid. This leafless epiphytic plant survives in specific microclimates governed by the unique hydrology of the Everglades, clinging to the sides of pop ash, cypress and pond apple trees with a spidering system of nondescript roots. When blooming, typically during the summer, the ghost orchid is one of the most enchanting flowers you’ll ever see with a bright white crown and curling tendrils appearing to float in mid-air above the black water below.


The ghost orchid’s beauty, history and rarity has given it a supernatural reputation that has attracted scientists, writers, filmmakers, photographers and orchid poachers in an unparalleled frenzy. Despite the orchid’s pop culture notoriety, including a 1998 bestseller called “The Orchid Thief,” many people have heard of the iconic flower, but few have seen one in person. My first time ignited a fire that would smolder for years.


 

When blooming, typically during the summer, the ghost orchid is one of the most enchanting flowers you’ll ever see.

 

Led by two orchid bloodhounds, Chris Evans and Mario Cisneros, I slogged several miles into the flooded sloughs of Big Cypress National Preserve. The illegal orchid trade has decimated the plants’ populations, and only 2,000 remain in the Everglades. Now, every known flower is a closely guarded secret. Even in our tight circle of friends, I was asked to turn off the GPS settings on my cell phone and camera before setting out.


After miles of sweaty trekking through thickets and cypress, we passed a pond apple like hundreds before it – until Chris halted me while we stood waist deep in a tepid mire. There it was – my first ghost orchid. I was overwhelmed. It was quietly beautiful, floating and bouncing on the vibrations of whispers, bestowing a touch of delicate intricacy to an otherwise chaotic landscape. Chris mentioned that only one in ten plants bloom each season and of those, only one in ten gets pollinated by a moth, but only one moth—a giant sphinx moth with a tongue long enough to drink from the orchid—can do the job, or so scientists believe.



A giant sphinx moth feeding from a ghost orchid. Photo © Mac Stone



That last part, “or so scientists believe,” piqued my interest. An unanswered question about one of the most famous flowers in the world, living sandwiched between Miami and Naples, and that my profession was uniquely positioned to answer, posed an irresistible challenge.


Over the next several years I plotted and schemed. I built custom camera housings, hired an engineer to design and weld reinforced steel brackets and mounts for my equipment, and started working with infrared triggering systems that would allow me to photograph sensitive movements of animals without having to physically trigger the camera myself. I needed this unmanned camera system because the orchid I chose to focus on was 50 feet up in a 500-year-old cypress tree in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.


 

The ghost orchid’s beauty, history and rarity has given it a supernatural reputation that has attracted scientists, writers, filmmakers, photographers and orchid poachers in an unparalleled frenzy.

 

I picked this specific orchid because it is the most prolific ghost orchid known in the Everglades, adorned with up to 18 blooms at a time, compared with the typical one or two blooms. Located in the last remaining old growth swamp in the Everglades, I thought the ancient relationship of moth and flower would have a better shot at playing out there.


A big effort, however, requires a solid team. I was joined by two fellow National

Geographic Explorers: Peter Houlihan, a tropical ecologist, orchid expert, and tree climber; and photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. who set up his system in the adjacent Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.


Photo © Mac Stone


Throughout the summer of 2018, we spent grueling, 16-hour days ascending and descending cypress trees on fixed ropes to replace batteries, wipe camera lenses, and swap out failing strobes. We were always questioning if the technology would actually work when the time came—if the time came—when a moth would visit the orchid. After an emotionally and physically exhausting 6,800 camera trap hours, we had an answer, but not the one anyone expected.


Photo © Mac Stone


Within the 56,000 images from our cameras, we captured not just one but five species of moth appearing to pollinate the ghost orchid, including the giant sphinx moth. When I looked closely at the giant sphinx moth images, I noticed something strange. The moth’s tongue-like proboscis was so long that it appeared to drink the nectar from the orchid without removing its pollen. For flowers, the nectar is the reward they offer in order to transport their pollen for reproduction. It seemed the giant sphinx moth was getting the reward without providing any benefit to the flower at all – a complete reversal of the longstanding theory about this flower and its pollinator. The orchid savior became the orchid thief.



Photo © Mac Stone


It is good news that the ghost orchid’s fate is not tied to just one moth, but even pollination from multiple moths is not going to save this orchid. Corkscrew Swamp has recorded a nearly 30 percent decline in the time when water is present (hydroperiod) over the last 50 years. This is bad news for the flora and fauna that have adapted over millennia to the specific hydrology in the sloughs, marshes and swamps of the Everglades. For the nearly 9 million people who depend on the Everglades for their drinking water, and equally for the orchids, birds, panthers, alligators and fish here, water is life.



Want to find out more?

You’re in the right place. For nearly 30 years, The Everglades Foundation has been the premier organization fighting to restore and protect the precious Everglades ecosystem through Science, Advocacy & Education.


Join the movement to restore and protect the global treasure that is America’s Everglades. Sign up to learn more. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Give a gift of any amount you can to support our mission at evergladesfoundation.org/give-now.





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