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On a Philippine mountain, researchers describe a ‘fire flower’ orchid species

Dendrochilum ignisiflorum and other high-altitude orchid species are threatened by global temperature increases. Image courtesy of Maverick Tamayo/UP-Baguio

  • A new wild orchid species, Dendrochilum ignisiflorum, has been described in the Philippine province of Benguet in the northern Cordilleras mountain range.
  • This fiery orange orchid belongs to a genus found in high-elevation forests in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines, Borneo and Sumatra.
  • The scientists who described it say the species is threatened by climate change, which could make its niche range uninhabitable.
  • The mountain where it’s found is also an increasingly popular tourist spot, while the forests in the area around it are being cleared for agriculture.

A new tiny orchid species with fiery orange flowers has been discovered on a mountain peak in the northern Philippines’ Cordilleras range.

The wild orchid species was named Dendrochilum ignisiflorum and described in a study in the journal Phytotaxa. It belongs to the Dendrochilum genus which prefers the mossy or cloud forests blanketing the high mountains of Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines, Borneo and Sumatra. This new Philippine-endemic orchid has been proposed as vulnerable under the criteria of the IUCN Red List.

Botanists recorded the species thriving at an elevation of around 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) on exposed ridges and the mossy forest summit of Mount Komkompol in Benguet province. Because it’s a high-elevation orchid, experts say it’s vulnerable to habitat loss due to climate change and deforestation.

Despite each flower measuring no more than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches), this species stands out for its fiery color (the species name in Latin means “fire flower”). “[It’s] not a showy type of orchid like what our mom or aunt collects,” says study lead author Maverick Tamayo of the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB). “It’s really small but the color of its flower can be easily discerned with the lush green background of the mossy forest.”

The new Dendrochilum ignisiflorum stands out for its fiery orange flowers. Image courtesy of Maverick Tamayo/UP Baguio

Tamayo discovered the flowers by accident. He was two days into a strenuous climb when he spotted  the bright yellow-orange flowers attached to a nearby tree. Right away, Tamayo says he knew it was different from other Dendrochilum species in the Philippines, and his speculation was confirmed five months later.

Unlike other Dendrochilum species, D. ignisiflorum only has a single leaf per pseudobulb, the enlarged, aboveground portion of the stem. This acts as perfect camouflage for the plant as it blends into the mossy forest it’s latched onto — unless its flowers are in full bloom. “You won’t even notice it unless you pay close attention to small details,” Tamayo says.

Dendrochilum orchids have been recorded in similar habitats in the Visayas and Mindanao regions of the Philippines, but a general lack of research makes it hard to pinpoint their distribution around the country. Ninety-four percent of the estimated 120 Dendrochilum species found in the Philippines are endemic, and like other epiphytes (plants that grow on trees), they help maintain forest ecosystems by providing food and habitat for birds, insects and mammals.

D. ignisiflorum and other high-altitude orchid species are threatened by global temperature increases, researchers say, which could make them rarer and harder to spot in the mountains.

This species is highly-selective in its habitat choice. Image courtesy of Maverick Tamayo/UP Baguio

“Climate change will be a problem,” says co-author Rene Alfred Bustamante, the executive director of the Philippine Taxonomic Initiative, Inc. “As the climate of such habitats gets warmer and warmer, species that have evolved for these habitats could not thrive or adapt fast enough against the effects of global warming. We don’t know the exact impact of global warming in the area, but because these species are so niche-specific, any change would be detrimental to them.”

Tamayo says the species is “highly selective to its habitat choice,” and hotter temperatures could dry up the forests, depriving the species of the moisture it needs to survive. “Increased climate [warming] could, in the long run, diminish the population of this species,” he says.

Deforestation, particularly the clearing of forests for farmland, which is common across the Cordillera range, could drive this species to extinction, researchers say. Mount Komkompol lies within a protected area: the Upper Agno River Basin Resource Reserve. It’s a highly important water system that drains from north to south, feeding major dams on the main island of Luzon. While the area has been declared a protected zone, locals have cleared primary forests there to grow profitable highland vegetables that feed millions across the country.

The view of the Mount Purgatory Traverse of the Upper Agno River Basin Resource Reserve (UARBRR). Mt. Komkompol is one of the mountains within this traverse. Image courtesy of Maverick Tamayo/UP Baguio

From 2001 to 2019, Benguet lost 2,700 hectares (6,700 acres) of tree cover, an area twice the size of Manila, according to Global Forest Watch data. The town of Bokod, which has jurisdiction over the area where the new orchid was discovered, is home to more than 13,000 people and experienced the greatest tree cover loss in the province, at 587 hectares (1,451 acres).

“The immediate lower slope of the pine forest [of Mount Komkompol] is already converted as agricultural land,” Tamayo says. “I fear that the upper slopes of the mossy forest might soon be converted for the same purpose.”

Mount Komkompol is also being promoted a nature tourism destination, a substitute to Mount Pulag, the Philippines’ third-highest mountain and Luzon’s highest peak, which is also found in Benguet. Mount Pulag was closed to trekkers following an eight-day forest fire that destroyed more than 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of forest in February. In 2018, it was declared off-limits for six months after hikers accidently ignited forest fires.

Since 2012, tourist numbers have tripled on Mount Komkompol, with tour packages offering hiking trips to the area’s Mount Purgatory Traverse. Researchers say they worry the increasing number of visitors and construction of facilities to accommodate them could imperil the orchid’s only known habitat.

The study’s lead author, Tamayo (left), and colleague, Patrick Penales, at the summit of Mt. Komkompol. Image courtesy of Maverick Tamayo/UP Baguio

“Although tourists might not be able to bring something home as the local guides are very strict, the human-inflicted disturbance in itself might affect the habitat, the trees or other organisms that are interrelated with the existence of this species,” Tamayo says.

He says hikers tend to bring in fruit from outside and dispose of the seeds along the trail. This practice introduces potentially invasive species to the area and “may introduce disturbances in the long run.”

Conservationists have urged local authorities to strictly implement carrying capacities and to properly orient tourists on science-based and sustainability-focused action plans in the area, including proper waste disposal and segregation.

“We have to think of the health and well-being of the forest in the long run since the mountain range is not only a tourism site but also a major water system,” Tamayo says. “In order to protect a species, we should not only think of it as an isolated unit of biodiversity but a member of a bigger ecological community. Thus, conserving and protecting its habitat means conserving and protecting the species and all other species that coexist with it.”

Citation:

Tamayo, M. N., Pranada, M. A. K., & Bustamante, R. A. A. (2020). Dendrochilum ignisiflorum (Coelogyninae, Arethuseae, Orchidaceae), a new species from Luzon Island, Philippines. Phytotaxa, 455(4), 240-244. doi:10.11646/phytotaxa.455.4.1

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Banner image of the newly-discovered Dendrochilum ignisiflorum, a high-altitude orchid species threatened by global temperature increases. Image courtesy of Maverick Tamayo/UP-Baguio.

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