Citizen Science

Can Orchids Keep Pace with a Changing Climate?

April 12, 2016

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The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) is named for the flower's resemblance to a bumble bee. Photo © "Birnbaum" / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Frail, exotic, delicate, alluring; orchids call to mind stories of romance, intrigue and obsession. Indeed from the time when “orchid fever” first swept Victorian England people have been driven to steal and even risk their lives in the quest for these gorgeous plants.

Orchids are also notoriously difficult to grow. Though modern technology and growing techniques have made it easier to have an orchid in your home, wild orchids are often adapted to specific climactic requirements and depend on symbiotic relationships to survive.

So how will orchids fare in a changing world? In the UK, some orchid species (like the man orchid, Orchis anthropophora) are declining despite protections, while others (like the pyramidal orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis) have become more widespread.

That’s why, when scientists at the Natural History Museum in London were looking for a way to understand how continued environmental change will impact people and nature, they chose to start with the UK’s 29 species of native orchid.

Calling on citizen scientists with a passion for orchids, they set up an online project called Orchid Observer where people could contribute or identify orchid photos from around the UK and help to transcribe historic museum collections of orchids.

Pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) at Kenfig National Nature Reserve. Photo © Keith Wilson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) at Kenfig National Nature Reserve. Photo © Keith Wilson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

The photo and identification portions of the project have been completed, but Orchid Observers needs your help to transcribe information about museum specimens. Though the specimens are from the UK, you can help to transcribe them from anywhere in the world.

Why Is Orchid Observers Important?

One of the potential threats of climate change is that the timing of seasonal events (phenology) will fall out of step. In the case of orchids, some of which have highly specialized fertilization strategies, this could mean that the flower would bloom when its pollinator is not active, thereby dooming the species to extinction.

Information about museum specimens including their species, location, collection date, and blooming phase provide valuable historic data to compare with the locations where plants are currently found and the timing of their blooms. Without this information it is impossible to know how much climate change has already affected the timing and distribution of orchids.

Your transcriptions make this past data easily available and searchable so that researchers can compare it to current data on orchids and analyze the results.

Man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) at Darland Banks, Chatham, Kent. The man orchid is named for the flower's resemblance to a human figure. Photo © Keith Wilson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) at Darland Banks, Chatham, Kent. The man orchid is named for the flower’s resemblance to a human figure. Photo © Keith Wilson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Beyond gaining a better understanding of how climate change continues to impact people and nature in order to better prepare for the future, the National History Museum is also sharing the data with the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland a group that publishes information on the distribution of plants in Britain and Ireland as well as supporting the conservation of wild plants.

How Can You Get Involved? 

Orchid Observers is housed in the Zooniverse collection of online citizen science projects. You can log-in to track your progress or opt to remain anonymous.

Simply click on transcribe at the top of the page to be taken to a tutorial. The steps are clear and it is easy to complete a transcription in just a few minutes. The most difficult step, determining the flowering stage of the specimen, is optional.

Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) at Mount Caburn. Photo © Keith Wilson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) at Mount Caburn. Photo © Keith Wilson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

When in doubt, you can click on the question mark icon for more detailed help or visit the Orchid Observers talk page to ask a question.

Channel your orchid obsession into a positive outlet and help Orchid Observers improve our understanding of climate change and protect these sometimes delicate, sometimes hardy, but always fascinating flowers for the future.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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3 comments

  1. Orchid lovers please consider support of oca.org! The Orchid Conservation Alliance is dedicated to the preservation of orchids in the wild.