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Europe's rarest orchid resurfaces on Portugese island

Scientists were surprised to discover the rare species of orchid which was first identified in 1838 but happened to be ignored for the past two centuries.

By
Ananth Baliga

Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Europe's rarest orchid species has been found on a volcanic ridge in the Azorean archipelago, off the coast of Portugal. Though officially home to just one butterfly-orchid species, based on local stories researchers expected to find two species, but instead found three.

Researchers found a new species called Hochstetter's butterfly-orchid, which was first found in 1838 but was for the past two centuries not recognized as a unique species. It is possibly the rarest orchid in Europe, which is home to some 300 species.

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The other two species were the widespread short-spurred butterfly-orchid and the rarer narrow-lipped, found on only eight of the islands.

"[I] was astonished when our field expeditions revealed the existence of a third -- and exceptionally rare -- species, growing in such a dramatic, primeval landscape," Professor Richard Bateman from the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London told BBC Nature.

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According to the team, while it was easy to prove that the orchids came from Europe and not North America, it was harder to prove where they originated within Europe. This, according to the team, makes the Azorean archipelago a perfect location to study the orchids.

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"The Azores make a refreshing change in that too few orchid species have been recognised on the islands," Bateman said. "It is a welcome bonus that the overlooked species has proven to be so informative about how evolution takes place... offering a suitable focal point for advocating conservation."

Scientists said that the newly discovered species required urgent conservation and hope the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global environmental organization, would not lump all of them into a single species.

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Farming and other developmental activities have destroyed the dwarf forests that were once abundant on the island and now threaten the survival of these species.

[PeerJ] [BBC]

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