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Trying to capture never-before-seen photo of rare flower

August 10, 2018

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — Mac Stone hangs 50 feet over knee-high swamp water with almost no leverage. He’s setting up a camera piece by piece but knows if he makes any mistake, the whole thing could tumble down into the dark water below.

All of this work is to capture one never-before-seen photo of the giant sphinx moth pollinating the ghost orchid at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in north Collier County.

“You could say the odds of getting this photo are like winning the lottery,” said Stone, a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. “I will certainly buy a lottery ticket if we get this photo.”

The ghost orchid is one of the rarest flowers in North America because it has been heavily poached, its habitat has been destroyed by development and it can’t be grown in captivity.

The orchid’s name comes from its white flowers and small stem that make it look like it’s floating off its vine.

“There’s just something mysterious about the orchid,” said Peter Houlihan, conservation scientist and Stone’s partner on the project along with the National Audubon Society. “It’s a very charismatic flower with all these different stories that add an allure because it’s so rare.”

Scientists have always believed the giant sphinx moth is the only insect with a proboscis that is long enough to pollinate the orchid, but they have never been able to prove it.

“I’m optimistic we can get this photo, but the moths are so rare,” Houlihan said. “Not that many ghost orchids are even pollinated each year. It’s just a guessing game of picking the right flower at the right time.”

The ghost orchid can be found only in South Florida, the Caribbean and Cuba. In Florida, it’s been spotted at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Seminole State Park, the Everglades and Corkscrew. A 2016 study estimated there are only 2,000 left in the wild in Florida.

The ghost orchid is under protection by most state parks.

The largest ghost orchid ever discovered is at Corkscrew Swamp. Stone and Houlihan have set their cameras on this orchid because it can blossom all year long and produce up to 40 flowers in a single year.

“The high concentration of the flower makes it the best one to stake out for this project,” Houlihan said.

Corkscrew’s ghost orchid was discovered in 2007.

This year the orchid’s first flower blossomed at the beginning of July. Since then, three more flowers and six more buds have appeared. Each bud lasts one to two weeks before it falls off the vine.

“There are probably more of them around the swamp,” Stone said. “It doesn’t really make sense for this to be the only one.”

Stone and Houlihan aren’t the first people to try to prove that the giant sphinx moth pollinates the ghost orchid. Chris Little, who maintains the website ghostorchid.info, captured a video in Big Cypress in 2008 of a moth pollinating the ghost orchid, but the video was too grainy.

“That video was the inspiration behind this whole project,” Stone said. “I was really disappointed for Chris when I learned that the scientific community couldn’t actually identify the moth.”

The camera used by Stone has a much higher resolution that relies on a motion sensor around the orchid so that when any insect passes through, it triggers the camera and flash, taking hundreds of photos.

The camera will remain on the orchid until it is finished blooming for the year.

“Obviously if I don’t get this photo, I might be back out here next summer until I get the photo,” Stone said. “I’m not someone who gives up.”

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Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com

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