Monkey-face orchid gets federal protection after 41 years

White fringeless orchid.
White fringeless orchid. U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has placed the white fringeless orchid, first listed as a candidate in 1980, under protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Last week, the orchid, also known as the monkey face orchid, was added as a threatened species to protect and conserve the rare plant found in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. The Magnolia state is home to six places it is known to grow: Alcorn County (one), Itawamba County (three), and Tishomingo County (two).

White fringeless orchids grow in wet, boggy areas at the heads of streams and on sloping areas kept moist by groundwater seeping to the surface.

The service’s final rule listing the orchid as threatened appeared in the Sept. 13 Federal Register. Protection for this plant under the ESA takes effect Oct. 13, 30 days after the rule was published. It is illegal under the ESA to take, damage or destroy the orchid from areas under federal jurisdiction.

The listing follows the September 2015 proposal by the service to protect the small and isolated orchid. The service has viewed the orchid as a candidate for the threatened and endangered species list since 1999.It was first petitioned for addition the list of protected species in 1980 and again in 1999.

“Because of its small populations across six states and myriad threats, conserving the white fringeless orchid comes with challenges,” Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cindy Dohner said in a press release. “We hope our partners will rally to recover the plant before its situation becomes more critical.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal is to recover the orchid, so that it no longer needs protection by the Endangered Species Act. The Service is working with partners to conserve its habitat.

The orchid is not facing imminent extinction, but its low numbers have been observed at more than half the orchid’s known locations. Threats are present throughout the plant’s range – leading the service to conclude that it will face extinction in the foreseeable future.

The orchid relies on certain butterflies and a single species of fungus to complete its life cycle. It has small, wind-dispersed seeds that lack nutrient reserves, depending on a fungus to enhance sprouting and promote early growth. The orchid can self-pollinate. It has only three known external pollinators: all butterflies – the silver spotted skipper, spicebush swallowtail and eastern tiger swallowtail.