The Old Growth Project

A state-listed endangered species in Florida, the ghost orchid is a leafless plant that photosynthesizes through its roots. Surviving in the subtropical climates of South Florida's Everglades, only an estimated 2000 remain because of poaching pressures. This plant is likely safe from poachers as it took root 50-feet up in a 500-year-old cypress. © Mac Stone.
A state-listed endangered species in Florida, the ghost orchid is a leafless plant that photosynthesizes through its roots. Surviving in the subtropical climates of South Florida’s Everglades, only an estimated 2000 remain because of poaching pressures. This plant is likely safe from poachers as it took root 50-feet up in a 500-year-old cypress. © Mac Stone.

Editor’s Note: Mac Stone received NANPA’s 2018 Philip Hyde Conservation Grant for his project, “Old Growth: Ancient Swamps of the South.” In this project he explores three old growth bottomland hardwood swamps (Beidler Forest, Congaree Swamp and Corkscrew Swamp) that are the last vestiges of unique ecosystems that once dominated the American South. He recently gave us an exciting update.

Story by Mac Stone

One of the goals of this project was to photograph the first-ever pollination of a ghost orchid. This is an endangered plant that was made famous by the novel “The Orchid Thief” and the subsequent film, “Adaptation.” Within Corkscrew Swamp in the Everglades, ghost orchids grow in the canopies of the ancient cypress. They probably did this all throughout the Everglades at one point, but most of the trees were cut down except this, perhaps the last remaining tract. In Corkscrew, you still have a large swath of virginal and subtropical swamp where orchids grow high in the boughs of the canopy.

Mac Stone working on his camera trap high in the tree canopy.  Photo by Peter Houlihan.
Mac Stone working on his camera trap high in the tree canopy. Photo by Peter Houlihan.

No one had witnessed or photographed the pollination of a ghost orchid. While the giant sphinx moth was believed to be the pollinator, there was no proof. We wanted to find out.

Have an idea for your own grant-worthy project? Applications for this year’s Philip Hyde Conservation Grant and the Janie Moore Green Scholarship Grant are accepted through October 31, 2019. Click on the links for all the details and the application forms. These grant programs are managed by the NANPA Foundation.

Last year, I managed to make it happen despite some very serious odds. A colleague and friend (Carlton Ward Jr.) endeavored to do the same in the nearby Panther Refuge.

What resulted was a complete upending of long-held beliefs about ghost orchid ecology and for this niche orchid world, a fairly significant scientific discovery. I’ve had to hold onto this secret for a long time, but it’s out now, so I can freely talk about it, which feels great. My colleague, Peter, has a scientific paper that’s pending publication, which will wrap this up nicely. 

Scientists have long believed that the giant sphinx moth was the only moth species with a proboscis long enough to pollinate the famous ghost orchid. This photo was an attempt to answer the decades long debate and after months of trying and climbing 50-feet in an ancient cypress, I managed to help move the scientific needle. Pictured here, a giant sphinx moth extends its proboscis to drink the nectar from the orchid. Not only did this effort prove that the giant sphinx moth could pollinate the ghost orchid, but other photos across my team have revealed several other species do as well. By identifying the pollinators of this rare and endangered flower, scientists hope to be able to further conservation goals.
Scientists have long believed that the giant sphinx moth was the only moth species with a proboscis long enough to pollinate the famous ghost orchid. This photo was an attempt to answer the decades long debate and after months of trying and climbing 50-feet in an ancient cypress, I managed to help move the scientific needle. Pictured here, a giant sphinx moth extends its proboscis to drink the nectar from the orchid. Not only did this effort prove that the giant sphinx moth could pollinate the ghost orchid, but other photos across my team have revealed several other species do as well. By identifying the pollinators of this rare and endangered flower, scientists hope to be able to further conservation goals.

You can read about it, or watch the film here: 

Film: Chasing Ghosts

National Geographic Article

bioGraphic article

Audubon article

This was just one part, but an important story to tell, for Old Growth. The quest continues on other efforts and images that are proving just as difficult. It feels good to have this one out of the way and picked up by popular media, shining a light on these ecosystems. Thank you NANPA so much for supporting this work!