Chasing Ghosts

A quest to identify the pollinator of the Ghost Orchid for the first time.

Chasing Ghosts is a storytelling project in collaboration with photographers Carlton Ward Jr., Mac Stone, tropical ecologist Peter Houlihan, and biologists from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Audobon Florida, and partner universities. Across three years, the team used remote camera trap systems to study the rare ghost orchids that grow deep within southwest Florida swamps. This project is documented in partnership with Grizzly Creek Films, Florida Wild, bioGraphic, and National Geographic. New scientific discoveries by the team have solved the mystery changed the paradigm of ghost orchid pollination. A journal article by USFWS biologist Mark Danaher and Ward appears in Florida Entomologist, and the discoveries by Houlihan and Stone, in Corkscrew, are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Ghost orchids are found in Florida and Cuba, and there are only about 2,000 ghost orchids in the state. This species, which draws its moisture from the air, has no leaves. Rather, its green roots cling to the side of trees. Ghost orchids are struggling to survive. Less than 5 percent of the 2,000 or so known ghost orchids in Florida manage to flower and produce seed pods each year.

These rare, elusive orchids were long thought to be pollinated by a single insect: the giant sphinx moth. Twice the length of its body, its long tongue can access nectar deep in long-stemmed flowers like ghost orchids.

But now, through the photographs by Carlton Ward Jr. and Mac Stone, it was discovered that several moth species other than the giant sphinx visit and carry the ghost orchid’s pollen—and the giant sphinx plays a completely different role than previously thought.

While the mysteries of the ghost orchid are uncovered through explorative scientific process, the story of Chasing Ghosts highlights the need to protect Florida’s old-growth forests and a healthy flow of water that are crucial to the survival of ghost orchids and other Florida wildlife.

In The News

Chasing Ghosts

Audubon

These Photos Reveal the Pollination Secrets of Florida’s Most Elusive Flower
Chasing Ghosts

Florida Entomologist

Pollinia removal and suspected pollination of the endangered ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii (Orchidaceae) by various hawk moths (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae): another mystery dispelled
Chasing Ghosts

bioGraphic

Ghosts of the Everglades
Chasing Ghosts

National Geographic

Discover secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce