Orchids in the Citizen Science Arena

Burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) at Mount Caburn. Photo © Keith Wilson / Flickr through a Creative Commons license, via Cool Green Science for TNC

We’re always learning about new groups of organisms or cultural/scientific projects that are receiving more attention from groups welcoming citizen-provided data to promote increased study and focused conservation efforts: lichens, birdstrees, reptiles and amphibians, pollinators, birds, fish, and a number of Internet-based projects on stars and literature, including birds. In the United Kingdom (why not Costa Rica?), there’s a movement to document the strange flowers that make up the orchid family. Read our post about the same project last year, or check out what Lisa Feldkamp writes about Orchid Observer for the TNC citizen science blog this week:

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 decliningdespite 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 theUK’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.

Read the rest of Feldkamp’s piece here.

One thought on “Orchids in the Citizen Science Arena

  1. I enjoy plants/gardening & care very much about protecting our planet. I believe a plant-based lifestyle can help reverse the effects of climate change & global warming. I find orchids to be stunning pieces of work with some varieties costing upwards of a pretty penny. They are very temperamental, require experienced growers and just the right conditions to survive,

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