New Orchids Found In Cuba
December 28, 2012

Two New Caribbean Orchid Species Discovered In Cuba

April Flowers for — Your Universe Online

Two new species of Caribbean orchid have been discovered by a research team led by the University of Vigo, in collaboration with the Environmental Services Unit at the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park in Cuba.

For over two centuries, the Caribbean islands have served as natural laboratories and a source of inspiration for botanists, including Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The studies of these men in the tropical archipelagos contributed to the emergence of the theory of evolution.

The University of Vigo research team discovered two new species of orchid; Tetramicra riparia — found in the eastern zone of the island - and Encyclia navarroi — found in the island's western zone.

"The first species described, Encyclia navarroi, is an orchid with considerably large flowers. A year later we discovered the Tetramicra riparia species, with very small flowers. The latter is so named because it grows on the banks of stony streams in the mountains of Baracoa, one of the rainiest and least explored areas in Cuba", as Ángel Vale, researcher at the University of Vigo, explained to SINC. The results of this study were published in two journals, Systemic Botany and Annales Botanici Fennici.

Drawn to the orchid family, Darwin used it to propose certain hypotheses about the important relationship between flowers and pollinators for biodiversity. Scientists estimate between 25,000 and 30,000 species of orchid exists, however, the mechanisms to explain this amazing variety are only now being discovered.

"We could highlight their extraordinary capacity to interact with different types of pollinators. Contrary to most plants, many orchids do not produce nectar or other substances to compensate insects and birds that visit them," Vale said.

Orchids continue to attract floral visitors with their colors and shapes, despite the lack of nectar, allowing the plants' sexual reproduction in a process known as deceit pollination.

The Plant Ecology and Evolution research team from UVigo is studying ecological and evolutionary consequences of deceit pollination in orchids that are endemic to the Greater Antilles: Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. One question the research team is attempting to answer is if deceit orchids have a greater taxonomic and genetic diversity than other nectar producing species.

The team is attempting to reconstruct the evolutionary history of orchids. They also want to study the effects of pollinators in the reproduction of plants, and how this interaction has modeled the colorful aspect of these Caribbean flowers.

"Despite the fact that T. riparia's flowers have a complete central petal, just like other species that make up a subgenre endemic to Cuba; the way they grow is very similar to a more widespread group that seems to have diverged on the neighboring island of Hispaniola. Our work provides molecular evidence of the greater relationship of T. riparia with these species on the neighboring island. This is in consonance with the geological history of the Caribbean islands, according to which the eastern end of Cuba was in close contact with that land", pointed out Vale.

Researchers are trying to estimate how many millions of years ago Caribbean flowers such as these emerged. This knowledge will enable them to test whether the ancestor of these species was already in Cuba, or if it evolved from an ancestor that colonized the island.

"Just as with most orchids, which offer no compensation to their pollinators, Encyclia navarroi and Tetramicra riparia receive very few visits from bees. This is one of the basic reasons that guarantee the survival of these plants, and also help protect the populations of their pollinators", explained the scientist.