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By  Andrea Wild 10 October 2023 3 min read

Key points

  • Forty-five per cent of all flowering plants could be at risk of extinction, including many orchids.
  • Australia has about 1600 orchid species and 51 are on the Red List of threatened species.
  • New evidence shows orchids arose in the northern hemisphere during the time of the dinosaurs.

Plants and fungi sustain life on Earth. They support vital ecosystems, provide food, medicine, clothing and raw materials. But the natural world is in crisis due to climate change and biodiversity loss.

The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi (SOTWPF) 2023 report found 45 per cent of all known flowering plant species could be at risk of extinction.

The plant family Orchidaceae (orchids) is the largest in the plant kingdom and among the most threatened. It is also one of the most loved.

Protecting orchids from climate change

[Music plays and an image appears of orchids surrounding text: No orchids go extinct]

Dr Heidi Zimmer: We’re helping make sure that no orchids go extinct and we do this using morphological information, what they look like and their DNA.

[Music plays and text at the centre of the screen changes to read: Orchids in Danger]

[Image changes to show the Australian National Herbarium building, and text appears: Canberra, Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country]

[Image changes to show Heidi Zimmer talking to the camera, and text appears: Dr Heidi Zimmer, Research Scientist, CSIRO]

Globally about 40% of plant species are threatened, and related to this climate change is recognised as a major driver of biodiversity loss. My name is Heidi Zimmer. I’m a scientist at the Australian National Herbarium in the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research.

[Images move through of a rear view of two females walking down a corridor, Heidi working in an office, labelled boxes of samples on shelves, a view looking down on potted orchid plants, and text appears: Narrow range endemics, Restricted geographic areas]

The main concern about climate change for Australian orchids is that we have many narrow range endemics, that’s species that occur in really restricted geographic areas, sometimes only over a few kilometres.

[Image changes to show Heidi talking to the camera]

And so, if the conditions change there, it might become unsuitable for the species and that would be bad news.

[Images move through to show a bee pollinating an orchid, a butterfly pollinating an orchid, and then a patch of yellow coloured orchids, and text appears: Mycorrhizal fungi]

Many orchids rely on specific pollinators like bees or butterflies and specific mycorrhizal fungi, those are the little fungi that live in the roots, and the conditions need to be perfectly suitable for them as well.

[Camera pans along to show a purple orchid, and then the screen shows a three-way split in the background showing a flood, a fire, and cracked earth behind the orchids]

So, slight changes in temperature or moisture could have a big impact, as could extreme events like floods, fires and droughts.

[Image changes to show pictures of orchids, and text appears: Orchidaceae]

OK, the Orchidaceae, the orchid family.

[Images move through to show various orchid displays in shops, and text appears: Phalaenopsis]

What comes to mind for most people when they think about orchids might be those orchids that you can buy in the supermarket, usually in pink or white. Well, they’re just one species of orchid. They’re probably a Phalaenopsis species.

[Images move through to show drawings of an orchid, and then the image changes to show a list of orchids and text appears: 28,000]

Those species are native to Asia but orchids are so much more than that. There’s about 28,000 species.

[Images move though to show pink and white orchids, a bunch of yellow orchids, and the Grammatophyllum orchid plant]

They range from things with tiny flowers that are only a couple of millimetres wide up into things which are a couple of tonnes like the Grammatophyllum which are found in Papua New Guinea.

[Image changes to show Heidi talking on the right, and on the left a photo of Darwin’s orchid]

Or you might have heard about but not realised it’s an orchid, Darwin’s orchid.

[Image continues to show Heidi talking on the right, and the image on the left changes to show the 30cm long spur being highlighted on the orchid, and then the image changes to show a moth with a 30cm long tongue, and text appears: Xanthopan morgani, Walker 1856]

So, back in the day, Darwin discovered this orchid that had a 30cm long spur and he was like, “Oh there must have been something to pollinate this, something with a 30cm long tongue”. And then 150 years later we found that moth with that long tongue. It was crazy.

[Image changes to show orchid plants inside a greenhouse]

Climate change is an important threat to orchids.

[Image changes to show Heidi and a colleague looking at a manila folder in an archive room, and then images move through of a flowering orchid, and then orchids in jars of clear liquid]

To help solve this threat, scientists at the CSIRO’s National Research Collections Australia are using taxonomy to ensure these species are well defined so that conservation management actions can be targeted.

[Image changes to show a view looking down on orchid plants, and then the image changes to show Heidi talking to the camera, and text appears: Underrepresented as a threat]

In a recent review of threats to Australian orchids, Jenna Wraith and Catherine Pickering showed that climate change was underrepresented as a threat to Australian orchids. I think this is not because it isn’t a threat. It’s more because we don’t understand the impacts well yet.

[Image changes to show the IUCN Red List website, and pages on the website scroll through showing various orchid varieties]

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the most comprehensive list of threatened plant and animal species in the world and it contains all the key information. And recently we did a project to see if we could include some more Australian threatened orchids on the Red List.

[Image changes to show the CSIRO website scrolling through showing information about the rare orchids added to the Red List, and then pictures of various orchids, and text appears: Added – Genoplesium baueri, Added – Pterostylis psammophila]

We did this by looking at orchids which were endemic to Australia and were listed on the Australian Government Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and we took the information from those assessments and transposed it on to the Red List.

[Image changes to show a very close view of an orchid on the website, and text appears: Added – Prasophyllum bagoense]

And that increased the number of Australian orchids on the Red List from 28 to 51.

[Image changes to show Heidi talking to the camera]

This work is really important because it helps with prioritisation and coordination across borders which helps with resourcing and conservation globally.

[Music plays and the image changes to show pink and white orchids, and then the image changes to show Heidi talking to the camera]

What’s our overall aim? It’s a list, but not just any list. It’s a comprehensive, well defined, evidence-based list of orchids, of all the orchids in Australia. Once we have that well defined list, we can work out which species are threatened and which ones we need to conserve. And we’ll know we’re on the right track when we’ve got effective on ground conservation happening for the species in need.

[Music plays and the CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency]

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Orchids in danger

Dr Katharina Nargar, a CSIRO botanist at the Australian Tropical Herbarium in Cairns is a senior author of the report’s chapter on orchids. She said newly recognised plant species, including orchids, may be especially threatened.

"The report suggests as many as three in four plants that are new to science are likely to be already threatened with extinction," Katharina said.

"Unfortunately, many new plant species grow in only a single location, have a shrinking population or are losing their habitat."

Last year the Australian National Herbarium led a project to have 23 threatened orchids from Australia added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. This brought the total number of Australian orchids on the Red List to 51.

Katharina said almost all of the 23 species added to the Red List are terrestrial, meaning they grow on the ground.

"This is because Australia has a rich diversity of terrestrial orchids. In contrast, the majority of orchids worldwide are epiphytic, meaning they grow on trees,"  she said.

"Adding orchids to the Red List helps raise awareness about Australian orchids and creates opportunities for people working to conserve orchids. Australia has about 1600 native orchid species. Around 90 per cent are endemic to Australia, meaning they occur nowhere else in the world.”

Dr Katharina Nargar ©  Tapio Linderhaus

The origins of orchids

New research presented in SOTWPF report used DNA sequencing to challenge previously held beliefs on the evolution of orchids.

"New genetic data suggests the orchid family did not originate in Australia as previously thought," Katharina said.

"Instead, the first orchids lived in the northern hemisphere during the time of the dinosaurs, around 83 million years ago. From there, orchids spread across the world. Australia’s largest orchid lineage, which accounts for over 60 per cent of Australia’s orchid species diversity, originated in Australia and dates back more than 40 million years.

“In contrast, most orchid species worldwide originated fairly recently in Earth’s history, within the last five million years.”

The Australian Tropical Herbarium and the Australian National Herbarium contributed approximately 20 percent of the original DNA sequence data for the study, covering approximately 80 percent of Australian orchid genera. This was through participation in the Bioplatforms Australia led Genomics for Australian Plants initiative, which sequenced more than 90 per cent of Australian flowering plant genera.

The Cooktown orchid, Dendrobium bigibbum. ©  Tapio Linderhaus

More surprising origins

Cycads are another group whose origins have been challenged by SOTWPF. A study by scientists in France and Austria combined fossil and genetic data to reveal these ancient plants originated some 300-360 million years ago. They occurred at much higher latitudes than today.

Extinction has been a common theme throughout the history of cycads, from the age of the dinosaurs to the modern day. Today only 370 species of cycad remain and 68 per cent are threatened with extinction. Conservation efforts are particularly hampered by illegal trade and poaching.

Fungi waiting to be discovered

Very little is known about the diversity of fungi when compared to plants. Only 155,000 species of fungi have been formally named. Now, thanks to SOTWPF, scientists estimate there are about 2.5 million species of fungi globally.

This means more than 90 per cent of fungi are waiting to be discovered. Among them could be new sources of food, medicine, chemicals and enzymes with useful properties such as plastic degradation.

The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2023 report was published by Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The science behind the report was published in a special collection from the journals New Phytologist and Plants, People, Planet entitled ‘Global Plant Diversity and Distribution’ and in a review of global fungal diversity and conservation published by the journal Annual Review of Environment and Resources.

The Australian National Herbarium is a joint venture between us and Parks Australia. The Australian Tropical Herbarium is a joint venture between us, James Cook University and the Queensland and Australian governments.

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