The smallest orchid of Mauritius

The Mauritian flora is well-known as it started to be described in late 1760s by Philibert Commerson. Nearly half century later, Thouars published the first major study about Mauritian orchids. Today nearly 100 native species of orchids have been recorded for Mauritius (Roberts & Wilcock 2003, Pailler & Baider 2012, Baider et al 2012; Fournel et al 2015).

The vast majority of the original forest cover that once existed on Mauritius has been destroyed. Today no more than 1.6% of good quality forest exist in isolated fragments. So, as expected part of the Mauritian orchids are extinct (~ 30%), and most of the still extant species are threatened with extinction. One can imagine that the many orchids disappeared before they could be collected.

Nevertheless, in 2000, a new orchid was recorded in Mauritius. It call Taeniophyllum coxii (Summerh.) Summerh.. Other orchids were added to the list later, but this one had something very special. The tiny T. coxii is the smallest known orchid in the Mascarenes. It rises to less than 1 cm in height, with roots that can span up to 6 cm laterally, but they are usually much smaller. Its flowers are less than 1 mm in diameter! More, the orchid is aphyllous, or it has no leaves. The young plants look like tiny sharp blades.

An adult plant of Taeniophyllum coxii

An adult plant of Taeniophyllum coxii

and a baby (yes, there is an orchid in this photo!)

and a baby (yes, there is an orchid in this photo!)

 

The species is known to occur in few mainland Africa countries (Ghana, Malawi, and Zimbabwe). Therefore, its discovery in Mauritius represents a large extension of its range. Not surprising, its first collection on Mauritius happened to be the 8th to be made in the whole world.

Dave Roberts, saw a single plant growing on a native coffee plant (Coffea macrocarpa), when he was doing his PhD field work. Three years later, Vincent Florens and me found nine plants in poor shape. Later, we found single individuals or thriving colonies of the species in other places (Roberts et al. 2004).

The current conservation status of T. coxii is not fully known, but on Mauritius the species would be classified as Critically Endangered using the IUCN Red List criteria. For this, and other orchid species to survive, there is need for a long-term conservation of their habitat, including restoration the Mauritian native forests.

 

References

Baider, C.; Florens, F. B. V.; Rakotoarivelo, F.; Bosser, J.; Pailler, T. 2012. Two new records of Jumellea (Orchidaceae) for Mauritius (Mascarene Islands) and its conservation status. Phytotaxa 52: 21-28. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/phytotaxa.52.1.3

Fournel, J.; Micheneau, C.; Baider, C. 2015. A new critically endangered species of Angraecum (Orchidaceae), endemic to the island of Mauritius, Indian Ocean. Phytotaxa 222 (3): 211-220. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/phytotaxa.222.3.4

Roberts, D. L.; Wilcock, C. C. 2003. Orchid flora of Mauritius. in J. Hermans and P. Cribb. Proceedings of the European Orchid Conference and Show. London. p. 294-303.

Roberts, D. L.; Florens, F. B. V.; Baider, C.; Bosser, J. 2004. Taeniophyllum coxii (Summerh.) Summerh. (Orchidaceae): a new record for Mauritius, Indian Ocean. Kew Bulletin 23 (4): 493-494.

Pailler, T., Baider, C. 2012. Polystachya jubaltii Pailler (Orchidaceae), une espèce nouvelle endémique de Mascareignes. L’Orchidophile 195: 285-289.