Spot UK orchids and help research climate change impact

23 April 2015

The burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata). Look out for this and 28 others and record what you see in the Orchid Observers project

The burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata). Look out for this and 28 others and record what you see in the Orchid Observers project © Fred Rumsey

If you see an orchid, let scientists at the Natural History Museum know as they are launching Orchid Observers today, a citizen science project and collaboration with the University of Oxford's Zooniverse, which will investigate how orchid flowering times are being influenced by climate change.

Recent research shows that the flowering time of the early spider orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, is being affected by climate change. Scientists want to know how changes in the environment are affecting other wild orchids. They want people to look out for flowering orchids and then take photographs and upload them, with the date and location, to the project website.

Also, as part of Orchid Observers, people can help digitise historical orchid collections by reading and recording label information from the more than 10,000 Museum orchid specimens.

Combining these modern observations with historical records will give scientists information spanning roughly 180 years, which can be compared against climate records over the same period.

Dr Mark Spencer, senior plant curator at the Museum and Orchid Observers lead scientist, said, 'Orchids are much loved and charismatic plants, some of which are declining – even in protected sites. Understanding how changes in the environment are affecting orchids may help us plan and protect key populations and areas.'

Other species and whole ecosystems?

The results from Orchid Observers could inform future research on how climate change affects not just individual species, but whole ecosystems. Dr Spencer explains, 'A major concern is that certain species that are dependent upon others may not be responding in the same manner or at the same pace.’

For example, a recent study showed that blue tit chicks are hatching at times that are increasingly different from the emergence and peak abundance of caterpillars, their main food source.

Dr John Tweddle, project lead and Head of the Museum’s Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, said, 'Environmental change is one of the biggest threats facing British wildlife. Understanding how it is affecting our plants and animals is a key scientific challenge that will in turn help us to predict the impacts of future change.'

How to take part

Visit www.nhm.ac.uk/orchidobservers for an orchid species identification guide and to find out how to take part.  

Dr Spencer has tips for finding orchids. ‘Contact your local botanical community such as the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) or your local Wildlife Trust to find out where orchids grow. They’re often found on old chalk grassland , ancient woodland and heath. When visiting an orchid site, please tread carefully – orchid plants and their habitats can easily be damaged.’

Look out now for the early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) with its distinctive purple flowers and purple spotted leaves. 

Early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) with its distinctive purple flowers and purple spotted leaves. It flowers early April to early June. © Mike Waller

Early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) with its distinctive purple flowers and purple spotted leaves. It flowers early April to early June. © Mike Waller

 

And also the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) which has whitish to pink and purple flowers and unspotted leaves.

Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) flowers mid April to mid June. Its 3 sepals and upper 2 petals have green lines running lengthways. © Mike Waller

Green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) flowers mid April to mid June. Its 3 sepals and upper 2 petals have green lines running lengthways. © Mike Waller

 

Go to www.orchidobservers.org to upload your photos, identify them, and help read and record the historical collections.

Spot one of the rarest and smallest

If you find an orchid that resembles a human figure, you may have found one of the rarer and more endangered species, the man orchid (Orchis anthropophora). The plant is 20-30cm tall with a long spike that is narrow, cylindrical and covered in many green or yellow flowers. It is found in southeast England and begins flowering in early May to late June.

Man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) © Mike Waller

Man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) © Mike Waller

 

And if you are very eagle-eyed, look out for what’s probably the smallest UK species, the bog orchid (Hammarbya paludosa), which has flowers only a couple of millimetres in size.

Some orchids are protected by law and must not be picked. Many of the other species are declining and the Museum strongly supports the principal that no UK orchid should be picked unless there is a clear scientific need – in most cases, a well-taken photograph is sufficient. If you think you have found something unusual or important, please contact the Museum for advice.

  • by Yvonne Da Silva