Chapters & Centers

Corkscrew Swamp’s Super Ghost Orchid Key to Solving Pollination Mystery

By all measures, the famous Ghost Orchid at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary was having another banner season this summer. In mid-July, the orchid entered its third week of blooming and sported eight flowers — and then it burst into the headlines once again.

Not only did explorer Mac Stone and research scientist Peter Houlihan successfully photograph a Giant Sphinx Moth visiting the Ghost Orchid — an image that hadn’t been captured before last year — but they also photographed a Fig Sphinx Moth pollinating the Ghost Orchid. And that upended a long-held scientific theory that only the Giant Sphinx Moth has a proboscis long enough to pollinate the Ghost Orchid. The photos produced by Stone and Houlihan showed that other moths could be doing the pollinating.

Early in July 2018, Stone and Houlihan scaled the towering Bald Cypress tree that is home to the Ghost Orchid and placed a custom camera housing with an infrared motion detector in hopes of capturing the nocturnal pollination. On July 27, 2018, they captured the image of the Giant Sphinx Moth visiting the flower and later got the photo of the Fig Sphinx Moth actively engaged in pollination.

On July 11, 2019, their findings were made public. “In 1954, Audubon established the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to save old-growth cypress forest from exploitation,” said Sanctuary Director Lisa Korte. “This protection allows us to continue to make new discoveries today, 65 years later. Every day brings new experiences at Corkscrew, where naturalists and scientists are encouraged to explore and contribute to our understanding of the natural world.”

The Ghost Orchid is perched 50 to 60 feet up in an old-growth Bald Cypress tree 100 feet off the Sanctuary’s famous boardwalk, so the blooms usually can’t be seen with just the naked eye. The Sanctuary positions a spotting scope to aid visitors in viewing this rare and endangered plant, which is special even among Ghost Orchids due to its size and abundance of blooms.

Binoculars also provide good views of the flowering plant. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary has binoculars available for rent for $3. Visitors who have cameras with strong lenses also get great views – and great photographs.

Ghost Orchids are found in Southwest Florida and Cuba. Only about 2,000 are believed to exist. Since its discovery in 2007 by visitors searching for owls, the Ghost Orchid has attracted thousands of visitors worldwide. The orchid is decades old but possibly went undetected until 2007 because it was hidden by a cypress branch that broke off during Hurricane Wilma.

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