Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic Orchids

Scott Stewart's presentation at the Mid-America Orchid Congress last March urged the audience to "find their way into orchid conservation."  Dr. Stewart is an accomplished scientist committed to a multidimensional approach to orchid conservation.  His research on restoring Florida's endangered terrestrial orchid population was featured on All Things Considered.  He's also a ninja-like public speaker who kept his poise through three (three!) audience cellphones interruptions during his talk.  Stewart conveyed deep knowledge and infectious enthusiasm about a number of conservation projects: 
  • DNA bar-coding technology that will allow field botanists to snip off slices of plants and put them into a gadget for precise identification
  • Aerial orchid habitat assessment using unmanned aerial vehicles
  • GPS tagging to see how things like controlled burns affect orchid habitats
  • Synthetic seed technology that allows orchid seeds to be encapsulated in tiny gel balls that have an ideal mycological mix
None of these technological advancements, he emphasized, were magical answers to ecological problems.  Rather, they're parts of a holistic approach to orchid conservation that considers multiple species, the habitats of the plants' pollinators, and the fungus situation that the seeds need in order to germinate.


The conservation approach that really perked me up was Stewart's description of crypto-preservation, which entails nitrogen deep freeze technology to hold permanently the plant matter and seeds until the end of time.  Stewart said "if the nuclear apocalypse happens" cryptopreservation will allow us to repopulate the world with orchids.  As a member of The Day After generation I felt that Stewart was definitely speaking my language.  I was at the edge of my seat.

Why orchids?  Orchids play a central role in biodiversity because, as Steward explained, they are like the "apex predators" of the plant kingdom.  If we're going to bounce back from a nuclear catastrophe, we're going to need orchids.  But the orchid seeds need fungus, so we need to throw that into the deep freezer as well, along with a moth or bee, and the moth or bee food, and so on.

But let's just hope we don't get to that point.  Until then, I'm imploring the kitties to find their way into orchid conservation, and I urge the vast, worldwide Cats and Catts community to do the same.  The Orchid Conservation Coalition is a good place to start.   

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