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.
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
Read the full story: Discovery reveals secrets about how ghost orchids reproduce