From Plant Press, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 2018.
By Benjamin J. Crain
The Palau Orchid Conservation Initiative is a collaborative program that focuses on the biology, ecology, conservation, and restoration of orchids and their associated fungi. The program was launched by the North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC), a coalition of organizations established by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Botany and the U.S. Botanic Garden, along with the U.S. Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry and researchers from Illinois College and the University of Hawaii. The program aims to improve our understanding of orchid communities, their biology, and distribution across Palau while acquiring detailed information on their co-occurrence with specific tree species, vegetation types, soil types, and habitats. The program also aims to explore the diversity of mycorrhizal fungi associated with orchids in Palau to determine how these symbiotic partners influence the diversity, distribution, and abundance of orchid species there.
As a post-doctoral ecologist with NAOCC, I embarked on a two-month collecting expedition in September to document orchid and mycorrhizal diversity in Palau. Through the Palau Orchid Conservation Initiative, the research team aims to improve understanding of biodiversity while helping to sustain it amidst the growing threat of environmental change.
The Republic of Palau is an archipelago of tropical islands in the Pacific and a significant component of the Polynesia-Micronesia global biodiversity hotspot. Palauan islands are generally of two types. Babeldaob, the largest island of Palau is of volcanic origin and somewhat mountainous. The remaining islands, including the famed Rock Islands that are designated as a World Heritage Site, are composed of raised limestone with karst topography, although some persist as low coral atolls. The unique position of these islands between the Philippines and New Guinea results in a flora that is influenced by each of these regions.
Substantial orchid diversity in Palau has been documented during past expeditions of researchers including Noriaki Fukuyama, Ray Fosberg, Agnes Rinehart, and Joan Canfield. The sizable collection of orchid specimens from Palau housed at the U.S. National Herbarium as well as records from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, New York Botanical Garden, Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium, and Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle proved critical in compiling a checklist of close to 100 orchid species collected on the islands. Despite the known diversity of orchids in Palau, a number of areas have yet to be surveyed and most areas that have been surveyed have not been visited in many years.