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15 Sep 2022

More unique orchid species discovered

It might be hard to imagine that beautiful orchid species live in the remote and rugged Kimberley region but three decades of research has located 20 species, with four newly described.

Researchers have spent 30 years searching in the rugged Kimberley region of Western Australia, culminating in a paper published in Telopea.

They used helicopters, 4WDs and quad bikes to traverse through remote territory, so far locating three tree orchids and 17 ground orchids.

 Australian Institute of Botanical Science researcher Dr Russell Barrett said with the Kimberley having a strong seasonal climate, including a nine-month dry season, it was easy to think there was little habitat available for orchids.
“Many people have assisted with the search over the decades, particularly Kimberley locals Robin and Butch Maher, both with a keen eye for potential habitats, and crucially, a helicopter at hand.
“One of the key challenges in understanding species diversity has been the many connections between the Kimberley, South-east Asia, and other parts of northern Australia.”
Four new species are described in this paper, three endemic to the Kimberley region, Calochilus kimberleyensis, Dipodium ammolithum and Dipodium basalticum, while Calochilus barbarossa is also found in the Northern Territory.
Finding orchids in such a remote region can be a slow process, and this research has taken 30 years to reach publication.
Dr Russell Barrett
“A few species remain very poorly known in the Kimberley, with only a single location known for three of the ground orchids, Habenaria hymenophylla, Spiranthes sinensis, and Zeuxine oblonga,” Dr Barrett said.
“Only a single site has been recorded for the tree orchid Dendrobium foelschei, but the population was subsequently killed by a hot fire that scorched the Melaleuca trees it grew in, so this species may no longer occur in the Kimberley.”
Butch Maher on a collecting trip in the north-west Kimberley with the Barrett brothers.
Dr Barrett said feral animals such as pigs could also destroy orchids and their habitats.
“Many orchid relationships remain poorly understood and new genetic data is likely to lead to additional name changes in coming years, and perhaps even additional species,” he said.
“Orchids such as Habenaria eurystoma occur in very discreet areas in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, separated by 1000 km or more.
“It remains to be determined how long these populations have been separated, and whether more than one species should be recognised. Genetic data is likely to be crucial in answering such questions.”
Dipodium ammolithum (newly described). A. Habit. B, C. Inflorescence. D. Infructescence. E–G. Flower. Photos by R.L. Barrett& M.D. Barrett.

Dr Barrett said they hoped the paper would increase understanding and appreciation of Kimberley plants and landscapes and promote further research.
Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust Chief Executive Denise Ora said the research the Institute was undertaking was critical to understanding and conserving our environment.
“Across the country and globally, our scientists are ensuring more is discovered about plant species so we can continue to protect them,” she said.

Read more on orchids

Did you know a large proportion of Australian native terrestrial orchids are endangered or threatened in New South Wales? It's why they are a focus for the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program!
Find out more in this story.

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