Arachnorchis pumila in situ and newly rediscovered
Back from Extinction
In Victoria the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) declare a species to be Extinct “when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died” and declare a species as Presumed Extinct when it is “not recorded from Victoria during the past 50 years despite field searches specifically for the plant, or, alternatively, intensive field searches (since 1950), at all previously known sites have failed to record the plant”. Despite these protocols, it seems that one can never say with any surety that a species is extinct. A case in point occurred in spring 2009 when a retired couple found an orchid they were unable to identify. It soon found its way to DSE scientists who were able to make an exciting identification.
The plant is Arachnorchis pumila (syn. Caladenia pumila) and it has been rediscovered by a Victorian couple in the south west of the state. The precise location will not be revealed for several reasons including the possibility of collection or trampling of its habitat. I would like to think the latter is the most likely and from experience, possibly the worst. Collection will certainly be a consideration for some, as the thought of having something so rare is always an irresistible lure for a certain section of the populace. However, a range of works are being undertaken to protect the species including fencing/caging to prevent browsing and hand-pollination to encourage seed production, the isolation of the mycorrhizal fungi associated with the orchid and the collection of seed by authorities to ensure propagation of the plant, with the hope that in the future, it can be reintroduced to the wild.
A. pumila was originally discovered in September 1922 by Miss B. Pilloud and although considered locally common at the time has not been recorded since 1926. Another orchid species from Tasmania was rediscovered last year after being lost for 168 years and these finds are why we should never give up hope of being surprised. One could say that any orchid enthusiast who had seen the A. pumila after the initial discovery, would almost certainly not be alive today and that only makes the discovery even more noteworthy. The opportunity to learn from this find has scientists bristling with anticipation with the possibility of many new plants being available in the coming years and who knows what their studies will uncover. As the name suggests, A. pumila (Dwarf Spider Orchid) is small and the description in Orchids of Australia The Complete Edition, W. H. Nicholls 1969 states the plant to be, a very hairy plant at 5-15 cm high, with a leaf of 6-8 cm. That publication also has a water colour drawing of the plant and Nicholls stated he only used living specimens for his drawings and descriptions. Flowers are solitary, 50-60 mm across, white and finely streaked with pink. The sepals are 30- 40 mm x 3-4 mm with thick green or brownish with clubs about 5 mm long.
This is a momentous discovery and already a significant amount of work is underway in an effort to preserve the integrity of the plant, its habitat as opportunities such as this are rare. I realise the temptation to visit the site will be overwhelming for those who either know or think they know the location but this also is a great opportunity to prove orchid enthusiasts can turn their backs, say no and leave the orchid and its habitat to those properly qualified and entrusted to the task.
Alan W Stephenson
National Conservation Officer
Australasian Native Orchid Society (ANOS)