SERC has assembled a diverse team of scientists to explore the unique orchid-fungus relationship in terrestrial ecosystems. Unlike many studies that have been limited only to orchid biology and ecology, our emphasis includes the fungal component, a fundamental aspect of orchid biology that has received little attention. We have developed molecular tools that allow rapid and precise identification of orchid mycorrhizal fungi. Through our efforts to isolate, identify, screen, and examine the ecology of these fungi, we hope to provide the basic information needed to propagate and re-establish orchids in their natural habitats and to assist in restoration efforts for these plants.
Although our initial work on orchid-fungi interactions involved species growing in the SERC forest, we have sampled terrestrial orchids throughout the eastern US. In addition, our experience in mangroves has provided us the opportunity to expand our research on mycorrhizae to include epiphytic orchids. Candy Feller, lead investigator for the SI Mangrove Research Program in Panama and Belize, has observed that different species of mangrove support very distinct epiphytic communities. Orchids, and their mycorrhizal fungi are an important component of these communities. This research is critical because even though the majority of orchids are epiphytic, most information on orchid mycorrhizae is based on studies of terrestrial orchids.
Native orchid populations continue to be threatened by commercial exploitation, over-collecting, and habitat destruction. Deforestation worldwide threatens orchids in their native habitat and land use changes, including the drainage of wetlands and increased use of fertilizer, furthers disrupts orchid habitat.