Rarest Orchid Species Rediscovered! Recognized After 173 Years
Scientists rediscover one of the Europe's rarest orchid species that was first identified in 1838 but happened to be ignored for the past two centuries. It was found in the Azores, a group of volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean.
The discovery of the Hochstetter's butterfly orchid confirms that the islands support three kinds of orchid species, rather than one. The findings, published in the journal PeerJ, explain how the rare species was found.
Using a combination of field and lab tests, a team of botanists decided to focus their studies on the Azores islands.
"Like many evolutionary biologists before me, I decided that an island system would be much simpler and would therefore yield less ambiguous results," lead researcher Professor Richard Bateman, from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, told the BBC.
The team focused on two kinds of butterfly orchids. They easily distinguished between the widespread Short-spurred Butterfly orchid and the rare Narrow-lipped Butterfly orchid by utilizing morphology, DNA sequences, and the characteristics of mycorrhizal fungi associated with the roots of the orchids.
It was only when the team investigated an orchid population along the highest volcanic ridge on the central island of Sao Jorge that they made a surprising discovery: a third species.
"[I] was astonished when our field expeditions revealed the existence of a third -- and exceptionally rare -- species, growing in such a dramatic, primeval landscape," Bateman told the BBC. "I was even more astonished when my subsequent studies in herbaria and libraries showed that this exceptionally rare orchid, found only on one mountain-top on a single Azorean island, had in fact been found by the very first serious botanist to visit the Azores, in 1838."
In 1838, German botanist Karl Hochstetter first found the new species-now called Hochstetter's butterfly orchid. But for the past two centuries, it was not recognized as a unique species. It is possibly the rarest orchid in Europe, which is home to some 300 species.
The research underscores the growing need to recover the rare species. It is exceptionally vulnerable and needs to be protected from the developments that threaten the forests and the orchids' survival, Bateman said.
"This remarkable species languished unrecognized for 173 years," Bateman said in a statement. "It's rediscovery and recognition beautifully illustrate the value of integrating field-based and laboratory-based approaches to generate a modern monograph. This methodology both demonstrates that the species is genuine and allows us to make informed recommendations for its future conservation."