Ghost Hunter: Armstrong Professor Studies Rare Orchids in Cuba

(Oct. 2, 2013) Armstrong Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Zettler recently returned from a summer trip to Cuba, where she spent six days studying ghost orchid populations and habitats.

In Cuba, Zettler worked primarily in the Guanahacabibes and the Vinales National Parks with orchid expert Ernesto Mujica, comparing the habitat requirements of Florida's and Cuba's ghost orchid populations. She secured a special research license to travel to Cuba and stayed with local host families during her visit.

Over the past several years, this popular Armstrong professor has partnered with her brother, Lawrence Zettler of Illinois College, to study orchids in South Florida. Together, the biologists have trekked through the swamp at the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge to study scale insects, mealy bugs, and other problematic pests affecting epiphytic orchids in the Big Cypress Basin ecosystem. Their research findings have been published in Orchids magazine and Southeastern Naturalist.

Last year, Zettler and her brother attended the International Orchid Conference in Ecuador, where they met Mujica, a leading expert on orchids in Cuba. Mujica invited them to visit Cuba to study ghost orchids.

One of the world's most sought-after orchids, this leafless epiphyte, known by the scientific name Dendrophylax lindenii, serves as the focus of the movie “Adaptation” and Susan Orlean's book “The Orchid Thief.” The ghost orchid tends to be found in moist, swampy forests in southwestern Florida and throughout the Caribbean islands.

“In Cuba, we looked at differences in the habitats,” Zettler explained. “We also wanted to see if the scale insects we see in South Florida affect the orchids in Cuba.”

Zettler plans to publish the findings from her research trip abroad in the coming months. She says she was particularly impressed by the wide range of habitats and environments where orchids thrive in Cuba.

“The differences in habitat were amazing,” she said. “In Cuba, orchids grow in dry exposed areas and in a range of environments other than swamps.”

Zettler hopes to bring Armstrong students to Cuba to study orchids in the future, creating an ongoing partnership between biologists, botanists, researchers, and students.

In the past, Zettler's biology research has primarily focused upon ants, but she finds orchids to be a particularly fascinating area of study. Her brother examines the natural fungi that are required for orchid seed development and has been working with conservation groups from around the world to preserve orchid diversity. Finding invasive insect pests on native orchids growing in remote locations was a surprise discovery.

“Orchids are a new area for me,” she explained. “There are so many interactions going on and there's still so much more to investigate.”