Science & Environment

Orchid spotters map shifting blooms

white helleborine Image copyright Mike Waller
Image caption Some rare orchids like the white helleborine have been spotted in previously unknown locations

A citizen science project to study when and where orchids bloom around the UK has already revealed 200 new flowering locations for particular species.

Members of the public are submitting and identifying orchid photos, and also annotating historical specimens.

Called Orchid Observers, the initiative aims to measure the effect of warming, and other environmental changes, on the distribution of 29 different orchids.

Reports have already been received from more than 1,500 locations.

"We're really, really happy about the number of people who've got involved," said Kath Castillo, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London.

She said the 200 new locations were a pleasant surprise.

"People have actually photographed, and uploaded their field record, for locations where the BSBI [Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland] had previously not had a record. That's potentially quite interesting."

Image copyright Fred Rumsey/Natural History Museum
Image caption Members of the public can upload their own photos to be identified

Orchid Observers is a collaboration between the museum and Zooniverse, the citizen science platform established at the University of Oxford.

The data it yields will not only be used by researchers at the museum, but will feed into the biological records data held by the BSBI.

"The results are identifying new locations for some of our commoner species, as well as providing information on flowering times," said BSBI president Ian Denholm.

The team is also pleased that several rare species, such as the green-winged orchid and the white helleborine, have been spotted flourishing in some of those 200 locations that were not yet in the records.

Studying the timing of seasonal events like flowers blooming or frogs spawning - a field called phenology - offers insights into how the living world is affected by environmental change. It also helps scientists try to predict the results of continued change.

Image copyright Mike Waller/Natural History Museum
Image caption Blooms like the fly orchid are charismatic, much-loved plants - but some orchid species are declining

The project will eventually compare the data from this year's field work with the historical orchid records from the Natural History Museum's herbarium. Verifying and annotating those records is another task volunteers can help with on the Orchid Observers website.

A preliminary look at the data has already suggested that two orchids which bloom early in the season, early-purple and green-wing, flowered on average at least 10 days earlier this year than in the museum's records.

"This is all new data and we don't know how significant it is yet," Ms Castillo said. "We have to do a lot more analysis.

"But it's kind of an interesting thing, and it shows that it works. You can get people to go out and collect records, and they don't have to be experts. They can submit their data and the results are interesting."

Those preliminary results are not unprecedented, either: the early spider orchid is already known to flower several days earlier each year than it did at the turn of the 20th Century.

Image copyright Mike Waller/Natural History Museum
Image caption Volunteers can log onto the site to help annotate new photos as well as historical records

"Understanding how changes in the environment are affecting orchids may help us plan and protect key populations and areas," said Dr Mark Spencer, a senior curator at the Natural History Museum and the project's lead scientist.

If flowering times change, Dr Spencer explained, this can affect other species.

"A major concern is that certain species that are dependent on others may not be responding in the same manner or at the same pace."

The season for the project's fieldwork is past its halfway point, but there is much more data still to collect. Some of the 29 orchid species on the list are yet to flower at all.

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