MIAMI -- The chief biologist at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge has been propagating orchids in his lab 20 miles east of Naples for the past 11 years as a way of saving one of the most endangered mammals in the U.S.
Larry Richardson's goal is to raise many thousands of these rare, picky, native plants and to spread them throughout South Florida's natural lands -- the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand, Picayune Strand, and Everglades National Park.
But what does raising orchids have to do with saving the estimated 120 panthers left in the state?
"Panthers and orchids are sentinels," Richardson said. "They are not guards; they are watchdogs of the environment. We should be watching them just as closely. When they decide to leave, we should too."
He says it's not much of a stretch likening panthers to orchids. Both are profoundly affected by the supply, quality and distribution of water. Both thrive in woodlands with minimal human disruption. And both have seen their habitat of hardwood swamps, oak hammocks and pine flatwoods shrink as a result of human encroachment.
In the mid 1990s, when the Florida panther population was less than 50, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began relocating Texas pumas to southwest Florida to breed with the panthers and widen the gene pool. A few years later, scientists launched a similar project with the more than 27 species of native orchids that had begun disappearing from the 26,605-acre refuge.
Richardson and colleagues from the University of Florida and Illinois College began gathering seeds of various native orchid species that grow in the ground and on trees. They experimented with different types of fungi that the seeds need in order to grow. They learned what kinds of insects pollinate each orchid. They transplanted their greenhouse orchids to different sites around the refuge and watched them grow.
"We don't grow orchids. We grow fungus. The fungus does all the work," Richardson said.
A recent visit by canoe to the headwaters of the Fakahatchee Swamp in the northern part of the refuge revealed seven species of orchids growing on the boughs and trunks of cypress, pop ash and pond apple trees. The only one in bloom was the delicate, violet-colored clam shell. The others scattered around the slough were the yellow helmet, dingy, night-smelling, butterfly, jingle bell and cigar orchids.
Richardson said the biggest threat to these epiphytes, or tree-dwellers, is freezing temperatures, which are exacerbated by lack of water.
"It's the availability of water at the coldest times of year that preserves our orchids," he said. "Water absorbs solar radiation during the day and gives it off at night. If we didn't have a threat of frost, we'd have orchids everywhere."
He said canals, such as those that run along nearby I-75 and SR 29, siphon off groundwater needed to recharge the rain-fed swamp. Diverting water to the Gulf for flood control and digging deep into the aquifer for drinking water make the problem worse.
"This issue with water is going to bite us in the butt. We're running out of water," Richardson said.
A shortage of water affects panthers by making them range farther to find it, risking vehicle strikes on highways and mercury poisoning from drinking contaminated sources.
To fix orchids and panthers, Richardson said, "you have to fix people," who may one day find themselves an endangered species.
"There's only one endangered species list," he said. "Those most endangered are at the top of the list. As those animals become extinct, everything below them on the list moves up a notch. Man's move to the top is going to be accelerated over time."