Confirming Extinction of the Everglades Orchid

In this age of habitat destruction, poaching of wild plants, climate change, and pollution, extinction is tragically frequent. However, it can be difficult to know if a species has actually disappeared. For example, nobody has seen the small white flowers of the Everglades Orchid, Govenia floridana, since 1964. Vida Svahnström is an orchid scientist and a Florida native herself, and she’s trying to answer if this orchid is really gone for good.

I’ve always loved orchids, and a little unusually, I’ve always been interested in species already lost to time. As scientists, we’re always very hesitant to classify a species as extinct, just in case it isn’t, but if we can be certain (or as close to certain as possible) then we can free up limited resources for species that can still be saved, and learn lessons from what’s been lost.

Svahnström has studied plant surveys and collector notes from the 1950’s though 2022, and determined that there’s more than 90% probability that this species is extinct. All that’s left are a few photos in a textbook and a few dried specimens. The Everglades have been extensively explored, so it’s unlikely that the orchid is hiding out somewhere unnoticed.

The story of Govenia floridana is a reminder of why it is critical to assess each species before it is too late. Discovering species on the brink of extinction is inevitable, but through the work of our Conservation Assessment and Analysis team at Kew, and the possibility of targeted conservation actions based on their findings, we hope to see more stories of recovery than extinction.

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