Orchids and Human Ecology

This topic submitted by Geoff MacIntyre ( geoffmacintyre@hotmail.com) at 6:30 PM on 4/29/04.

Students take a "coral quiz", San Salvador, Bahamas.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

Fellow CostaRiccers-
Ok, so my last posting didn’t make much sense…but it was what I had to work with at the time. It got late, I had been staring at a screen all day, and I was about to make a pot of coffee and pin my eyelids to my forehead with a couple of alligator clips when I fell over and slept like a baby.
I take it these posting/discussions are to encourage each other in building an interesting paper. In posting a bunch of junk, I have motivated myself to immediately post something… less junk. I’m reading some of your papers also, so read mine and comment while opportunities for constructive criticism ABOUND. I’ll do the same. Geoff MacIntyre
Costa Rican Orchids
1. general information about Orchids
a. what it means to be unique
i. specialists versus generalists “are you highly evolved?”
ii. Human Ecology. Change- It is what Humans do best. If we don’t like something, we change it to suit our needs or aesthetics, and we to it instantly. Orchids and other specialists are completely different. They have evolved physically, chemically, and dramatically changed their lifestyle to suit their ecosystem, becoming a better and better fit to their niche even as their ecosystem evolves slowly with them. Instead of evolving to live in trees to get more sunlight in a shady forest, would not humans have cut down the forest instead? Even after we have dramatically changed an ecosystem, we end up changing it again. From forests, to farms, to native villages, to towns, to cities, to freeways and parking lots and toxic waste dumps, we won’t leave a habitat alone until it is too toxic to occupy. Because of this, it is hard to even understand the very uniqueness of organisms like orchids because the plants and animals we come into contact with on a regular basis are generalists- successful species that thrive in disturbed or quintessentially human habitats. Cattle, corn, domestic dogs, dandelions and even wild animals like deer. Often we have removed the truly unique creatures before we even noticed them- or our cat did. We are rarely exposed to the rare, unique, and highly specialized animals and plants, because they cannot live with us unless we make, or preserve room for them. Most of the time our species paves, burns and plows everything we see. These life forms have spent millions of years adapting to a more stable, human- free world. If you take a goldfish, a cockroach, a multi-floral rose, a dandelion anywhere on Earth, it will likely thrive. If a canopy dwelling orchid is moved up or down 10 meters, it is as doomed as a fish out of water.
b. variety and number of species
i. smallest and largest of Orchids
c. distribution worldwide
i. distribution in Costa Rica
1. Climate/ecological zones of Costa Rica
2. Ecology and lifestyle of Orchids
a. Physiology
b. Orchid reproduction
c. Habitat requirements
i. Most epiphytic
ii. Arid regions
iii. Tropical forests
iv. Subtropical/ seasonal forests
v. Mountain (cloud) forests
d. Mutualistic interactions
i. Mycorrhizal fungi
ii. Insects
1. as pollinators
2. other stuff- ants etc
e. Orchids and humans
i. Humans are destroying prime orchid habitat all over the world at incredibly fast rates. Unique tropical plant species like Orchids are being destroyed faster than they can be identified and named, let alone studied! Any species we don’t cultivate will vanish when the habitat they need is destroyed. How many different kinds of orchids have you seen? I have probably only ever seen 10 different kinds in a large greenhouse. I am not content with never knowing the other 97.5% before they vanish into cow pasture, yet we must content ourselves to this future, for it is already the present.
We shouldn’t preserve forests just for orchids. Life as we know it on earth depends on the continued existence of these forests in ways we may never understand.
3. Gallery of wild orchids we are likely to see if we look hard on the trip
a. Other places to see orchids
i. Krohn Conservatory – Cincinnati
1. http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/cityparks/pages/-3452-/
ii. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens
1. http://www.cincyzoo.org/

"As we delight in the strange and exotic beauty of orchid flowers it is salutary to reflect, that we are, in essence looking at their genitalia." Unknown British biologist
I began this topic out of an interest in these strange and beautiful plants. I have one living in my shower that has only bloomed once in 2 years. I had no idea when I began that the topic of Orchids is inherently overwhelming. For example, there are more than 25,000 species of Orchids so far identified, and as many hybrids have been described.
Can you name your favorite plant or animal? Say you said “cat”. How many different kinds of “cat” are there? If I were doing my project on cats I would look it up, but I’m not. I can however safely say that there are THOUSANDS of more different kinds of orchids that cats. Can you imagine what 50,000 different variations on the theme of “cat” would produce? Such is the nature of the Orchid family.
What makes an Orchid an Orchid? What similarities can we draw out of the group? What do Costa Rican orchids have in common?
Similarities between orchids are harder to come up with than differences. Individual species are very specific in their needs, and are very adapted to the specific niche they occupy in the wild. Wild orchids will almost certainly die if removed from their original location- unless similar temperature, light, humidity and nutrient requirements are provided. Even more specific requirements are necessary if this plant is to bloom. Canopy dwelling orchids that fall to the forest floor are almost certainly doomed.
Most orchid species are epiphytic- highly evolved plants that grow free of the soil. These most commonly grow on trees, but can be attached to almost anything if conditions are right. These orchids get nutrients from “stem flow”- water that landed on leaves and branches and runs down the tree, bringing with it dissolved nutrients from animal droppings. Orchids are always found in a mutualistic association with Mycorrhizal fungi
Orchids are also extremely diverse, occupying almost all frost-free climate zones, and are present on every continent but the Antarctica.

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