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.
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.
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?
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.
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.