Photograph By CARLTON WARD, JR
Photograph By CARLTON WARD, JR

Our three favorite scientific breakthroughs this month

What do rare orchids, crocodiles, and meteorites have in common? Science.

This story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Plant’s pollinator secrets revealed

For exotic beauty, few flowers rival the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). These rare orchids have long nectar tubes into which moths stick their tonguelike proboscises to reach a sugary reward. As they feed, moths rub against a pollen source and pick up grains they’ll transfer to other orchids they visit.

Rare ghost orchid has multiple pollinators, groundbreaking video reveals Scientists and photographers captured footage that upends what we know about the famed, endangered flower.

It’s long been thought that only one insect, the giant sphinx moth, had a long enough proboscis to pollinate these orchids—but new images and research refute that. Photographers Carlton Ward, Jr., and Mac Stone, working with biologists Peter Houlihan (a National Geographic Society grantee) and Mark Danaher (of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), spent years preparing and fine-tuning remote cameras. The payoff: photos of five moth species visiting ghost orchids, including the streaked sphinx pictured above, in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Two of these species had ghost orchid pollen on their bodies. Meanwhile, new measurements suggest that even more moth species may be able to reach the orchid’s nectar. “It’s incredible,” Ward says, to make a discovery about this “symbol of hidden wildness.” —Douglas Main

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Preserving meteorites for study

Rocks from space regularly rain down on our planet, but only a few survive the fall. At Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies, some 40,000 meteorite remnants—such as the rare metal-and-crystal pallasite above—are stored in a humidity-controlled facility. The goal is to keep them free of contamination so future generations can study them for clues to how our solar system formed, and how we might one day survive in space. —Maya Wei-Haas

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Bellyful of stones

It’s not unusual for crocodiles, alligators, and other crocodilians to have a stomach full of stones. Scientists have long assumed the stones help the semiaquatic reptiles digest prey; a new study suggests they also enable the crocs to spend more time submerged. —Annie Roth