Earth’s most ubiquitous life-formstend to be generalists –
species whose individuals can adapt to eating just about anything, anywhere.
But the flowering plant family known as orchids have gained a global presence by being specialists,
with each species customizedto a very specific habitat.
And behind orchids’ wild variety of looks and behaviors are the same few stingy strategies.
For one, while other flowering plants send their seeds off with a supply of victuals to get them growing,
Instead, their seedlings must trick fungiinto feeding them
until they’re old enough to photosynthesize their own food.
At that point, some species start giving back,
but others hoodwink their fungal partners into lifelong one-way relationships.
In fact, several are so dedicated to mooching that
they don’t even have the ability toproduce their own sugar.
And many orchids also cheat their pollinators.
Almost flowers offer snacks to the critters who transfer their pollen,
orchids have a rich array of disguises
that make them look or smell like the pollinator’s potential mates or their favorite sugar-filled flowers.
For example, Australian hammer orchids look and smell like flightless female wasps.
But when a male tries to carry her off to mate,
he catapults instead into the flower’s sex organs,
sometimes picking up a sticky packet of pollen.
Then there’s the orchid’s choice of real estate.
Instead of setting down roots in a patch of rich soil,
and then having to waste energy competing with other plants for light and nutrients,
most orchids settle in inhospitable low-rent locations
like bare bedrock, soggy bogs,or the branches of trees.
Orchids have customized these miserly habits-
mooching off of fungi, cheating pollinators, and choosing cheap real estate
to habitats ranging from sub-Antarctic islands to tropical rainforests.
And in the process, they blossomed into an astounding 25,000 species.
most of which are specialized to live in only one particular place with its particular conditions.
And their wild variety and exotic looks have not escaped our notice.
During the so-called Orchideliriumin 19th century England,
Rich aristocrats sent orchid hunters off to scour the tropics for rare, valuable finds.
The hunters even sometimes touched or razed the forests behind them in a quest for exclusivity.
Today it’s illegal to collect or trade wild orchids,
but tens of thousands of flowers are soldon the black market each year,
some for tens of thousands of dollars.
And, while orchid hunters themselves no longer chop down whole forests,
vast swaths of prime orchid habitat are lost to deforestation each year,
putting thousands of orchid species at risk of extinction.
And yet, orchids’ diverse splendor may actually help save them,
Thanks to the devotion of a global network of orchidphiles.
In 2010, police in England stood guard around the clock
to protect the country’s last wild lady’s slipper orchid from thieves.
And in Ecuador, home to some of the highest densities of orchids in the world,
conservationists established rainforest reserves to save the remarkable-looking Dracula orchids.
Meanwhile, Australian citizens are building fences
to protect threatened spider orchids from grazing rabbits and kangaroos,
and scientists in the US are breeding rare cigar orchids in the lab
and planting them in their native habitat in South Florida.
All to save a bunch of plants that lie, cheat, steal, and –
ooooooh, that one’s pretty!
Hey! Emily here
Thanks to Curtin University and University of Western Australia for sponsoring this video.
Also, special thanks to Kingsley Dixon
and the rest of the folks in the Orchid Specialist Group of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission
for sharing their expertise with us.
The special is great dedicated to helping the orchidphiles around the world
learn more about Earth’s most diverse plant family,
in order to protect and restore orchids and their habitats.