Te Papa’s Curator of Botany, Carlos Lehnebach, has just been awarded a Marsden Fast-Start grant for three years to answer this intriguing question.
Spider Orchids are a group of terrestrial orchids that are usually found on forest floors and road banks. Their flowers are small and dull in colour, and it has been suggested that these orchids mimic the appearance and smell of fungi to attract female fungus gnats to their flowers. The fungus gnats lay their eggs in the flowers and by doing so they inadvertently pollinate the flowers.
Although this fascinating pollination system in New Zealand Spider Orchids was first mentioned by Thomson in 1927 it has never been studied in detail. A bit of an urban legend! (or a forest legend?).
Over 80 years later, thanks to a Marsden Fast-Start grant (Royal Society of New Zealand – Marsden Fund; http://www.marsden.royalsociety.org.nz ) we will be able to investigate the fertilisation process in these orchids. We will then relate our results to the evolution and maintenance of different flower forms and flower colour in populations of the spider orchid Nematoceras trilobum.
Follow us in our quest to untangle the relationship between these orchids and their fungus gnats!