Europe’s Rarest Orchid Rediscovered on Volcanic Island Ridge

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The Hochstetter’s Butterfly-orchid.
Photo by Richard Bateman

Researchers went to the Azorean islands to find out if they contained one species of orchid, or two. Instead, they found three, and the third is arguably Europe’s rarest orchid species. Hochstetter’s Butterfly-orchid was rediscovered on the highest ridge of a volcano in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, and now researchers are urgently requesting protection for this threatened species.

The research team had originally wanted to focus on studying butterfly orchids on the Azorean archipelago as a simple method for studying the origin of species. They had been systematically investigating each of the nine islands located in the North Atlantic Ocean, taking note of how the island orchids had evolved into miniature versions of their Mediterranean ancestors.  The research team cataloged the orchids by morphology, DNA sequencing, and by what myccorhizal fungi were found nestled among the orchid’s roots.

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Short-spurred Butterfly-orchids on the island of Pico.
Photo by Richard Bateman

They found plenty of Short-spurred Butterfly-orchid’s on the island of Pico, and even some of the rarer Narrow-lipped Butterfly-orchids. But their straightforward investigation took a sharp detour when research team member and local botanist Dr. Mónica Moura (University of the Azores) decided to explore the secluded dwarfed laurisilva forests growing on the highest volcanic ridge of the central island of São Jorge. There, she found a population of butterfly orchids. But something was different about them. “I immediately recognized the flowers as being exceptionally large for an Azorean butterfly-orchid,” said Moura. She sent photos to the laboratory to see if it was a new species. But when botanist and team leader Prof. Richard Bateman ran analysis and checked the available data, he realized the orchids weren’t new. They had been recorded 1844 in Flora of the islands, from a specimen collected by a German botanist. But they had never been correctly identified, and had thereafter been lumped in with the more common orchids of the Azoreans.

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The Azorean island of São Jorge, where the new orchid has been discovered.
Photo by Rob Poot

After a volley of tests and a thorough investigation of the orchid’s taxonomic history, the team has excitedly published their vividly illustrated research, entitled “Systematic revision of Platanthera in the Azorean archipelago: not one but three species, including arguably Europe’s rarest orchid”, in the peer-reviewed open-access journal PeerJ. They are also determinedly pursuing conservation protection for this rediscovered and exceptionally rare butterfly orchid.

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The Azorean Islands, circled in red
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