World's Smallest Orchid Discovered (By Accident)

It's nearly see-through and only about as wide as a nickel is thick. No wonder it took an orchid expert months to notice the gem right under his nose.

The world's smallest known orchid (pictured)—just over 2 millimeters (0.08 inch) across and nearly see-through—has been discovered nestled in the roots of another flower in Ecuador, scientists announced this week.

Lou Jost, an ecologist with the EcoMinga plant-conservation foundation, has studied the plants of the South American country's mountainous forests for 15 years.

Earlier this year he'd collected an orchid of a larger species to study in his greenhouse. "Several months later I saw this tiny plant," he said.

Ecuador's mountains are havens of biodiversity, where plants on one mountain may be entirely different from those on a neighboring peak.

In the region where the tiny orchid was found, Jost also recently discovered 28 new orchids in the Teagueia genus, a group previously thought to contain only 6 species. Ecuador as a whole is home to 4,000 known orchid species—a thousand of them discovered in the past 12 years alone.

(Related: orchid pictures from National Geographic magazine.)

The newfound orchid, part of the Platystele genus, hasn't yet had the type of scientific review that would lead to its official designation as a new species. But, Jost said, orchid expert Carl Luer, a researcher affiliated with the Missouri Botanical Garden, agrees that the plant is a unique species.

The bloom has, for now, no name. "It's just sitting here with lots of others that need to be described," Jost said. "These forests are just filled with new things."

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