Polymath reader discovers world’s smallest orchid

June 27, 2011 • 9:10 am

I like to know who my readers are, and when “Lou” sent me that picture yesterday of a caecelian trying to nom an earthworm, and added that he helped run EcoMinga, a string of biodiversity refuges in Ecuador, I looked him up.  It turns out that Lou Jost is something of a biological polymath, and well worth introducing to you.  Check out his website; he not only manages EcoMinga, but is an accomplished painter, photographer, research scientist, and orchid collector and identifier. In fact, he discovered the world’s smallest orchid, a so-far-unnamed species in the genus Platystele, in 2009.  It’s so small that you could place twelve flowers along a one-inch line. As the Independent reports:

Lou Jost, an American botanist, found the tiny orchid by accident when he was inspecting a plant collected from the Cerro Candelaria reserve in the eastern Andes, which was created by Ecuador’s EcoMinga Foundation in partnership with the World Land Trust in Britain.

The plant is just 2.1 mm wide, and instantly supercedes the species Platystele jungermannioides as the world’s smallest orchid. The petals are so thin that they are just one cell thick and transparent.

The flower is just one of 60 new orchids and 10 other plant species that Dr Jost has discovered in the past decade. “I found it among the roots of another plant that I had collected, another small orchid which I took back to grow in my greenhouse to get it to flower,” he said of his latest discovery. “A few months later I saw that down among the roots was a tiny little plant that I realised was more interesting than the bigger orchid.

Here’s a photo by Jost: note that the orchid is against a ruler, and the lines are 1 mm apart.

Here’s a view of the previous contender, Platystele jungermannoides, now the world’s second-smallest orchid (from Orchids Wiki):

And here are two of Lou’s paintings (you can see more here; some are for sale). Here’s an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis):

and a crimson-rumped toucanet (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus):

He takes orchid and animal photographs.  Here is his photo of the lovely red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) taken at La Selva, Costa Rica:

Jost notes (and this is new to me) that these frogs can change their color:

These frogs can change color, and their appearance depends on the time of day and their mood. The frog above was photographed at night, and shows its lime green night colors. The frog [below] is the same species, photographed during the day. I was lucky enough to find it clinging to a leaf along a trail.

Here’s Jost (left) presenting David Attenborough with a photograph (and the naming rights) to a new species of tree that Jost discovered on his reserve:

Anyway, if you’re a reader who studies cool animals or plants, or even average ones, feel free to send along your best photos.  I can’t guarantee putting up all of them, but it would be nice to see each other’s research organisms.   Anyway, kudos to Lou for helping save the rain forest and for documenting its denizens.

30 thoughts on “Polymath reader discovers world’s smallest orchid

  1. Wonderful post introducing a versatile personality like Lou Jost! I am not in the field of evolutionary biology but have always tried to know more about it and am very happy to have found your blog 🙂

  2. I think you have an error here Jerry.

    IF I’m reading things correctly, Platystele jungermannoides wasn’t discovered in 2009, jungermannoides was the former “World’s Smallest Orchid”

    However, I’m still curious as hell as to who its pollinators are.

    1. Oh, right, I forgot to include my evidence! Orchids wiki sources its synonym at 1912 and it’s modern modern nomenclature in 1974, plus Google scholar pulled up papers on it from the 1980s.

    2. Yes, you’re right. The new one is in the same genus, but is as of yet unnamed (as far as I can see). I’ve made the correction, thanks.

  3. What an amazing discovery (and what great paintings). I have been a orchid lover since I was a child, because Orchids are the great eccentrics of the plant kingdom.

  4. Thanks for the kind words! I hope some of you come visit us here. We just built a little cabin deep in the cloud forest for researchers, so if anyone is studying cloud forest organisms, you might find this useful. This is a particularly good place to study speciation in plants. For an example of a crazy orchid genus that speciates wildly here (but is virtually absent from the rest of the world), check out this article:
    Preliminary, rough DNA evidence suggests the speciation rate for these orchids may be almost an order of magnitude faster than for more famous plant radiations like Scalesia (on the Galapagos) or the lobelioids (Hawaii).

  5. I’m thinking the crimson-rumped toucanet might just turn its head and poke me in the nose. Good stuff!

  6. Yes, my thanks too, Jerry. It’s wonderful to see science and art like this.

    My favorite weird orchid is Rhizanthella gardneri, which is an orchid trying to be a fungus. It grows entirely underground, and even flowers underground.

  7. NONE of those paintings are available for the acquisitive to purchase dammit! Or at least think about purchasing until we realise we really can’t afford it, sigh. I really want the Yellow-eared Toucanet painting. I guess I’ll have to make do with setting it as my wallpaper.

    1. Thanks for liking my paintings. I have been too busy lately to paint much, so there are none for sale now (all the ones on the website were sold long ago). I have many things in my head that are begging to be painted…I hope I can get back to painting soon. By the way, when they were available, the paintings were not too expensive. They were bought usually the moment they were dry….

        1. Forgot to say please, please send me an email when you have some painting available, looking forward to it.

  8. I had the pleasure of meeting Lou at a reunion a few weeks ago at our mutual undergraduate alma mater, Lawrence University, at which he gave a talk and was recognized for his achievements in the alumni convocation.

    After chatting with him at a Physics Dept. get-together and, later, talking to his academic advisor at the Math Dept. get-together (Lou truly is a polymath!), I learned that, besides the cloud forests of Ecuador, Lou is also very concerned about the woeful state of biologists’ math abilities (see his website for papers he’s written on this subject)!

    As a wet-behind-the-ears biologist myself, it’s hard to argue with this notion; though one or two of my professors (both at the undergraduate and graduate levels) encouraged highly quantitative thinking, this was generally not emphasized throughout my (biology) education. I’m left wondering if this state of affairs reflects an overall lack of quantitative reasoning abilities in the field (due to a lack of training or, perhaps, dyscalculia) or the lack of the need for highly quantitative analysis in most sub-fields?

  9. Thanks for the introduction – yet another cool scientist! 🙂

    (That tiny orchid makes me want to go ‘Awwwww’)

  10. Wonderful story, wonderful work, wonderful study site! Orchids are amazing.

    Lou: Does the tiny Platystele orchid have any detectable scent?
    In South Africa, where I have worked a bit on orchid pollination, it seems that differing scents (that attract different pollinators) is one of the ways closely related orchids can differ. It may be well worth your time to sample the dynamic headspace of your orchids! (Steve Johnson, UKZN, SouthAfrica would probably love to help with the scent analysis!). Write me if I can help with anything in this regard; find my email at the IEU/UZH webpage.


    1. No, I could detect no scent. That would be quite a challenge, to get enough scent to analyze from such a small flower. But yes, most orchids that rely on scent have very specific mixes of chemicals directed at particular pollinators. Some, for example Lepanthes, imitate species-specific insect pheromones.

    1. It is taking Anne Chao and I longer than we had expected, because we had to solve some tricky problems. The trickiest was how to incorporate species similarity into the diversity concept. We have this figured out now. There are still a few other open questions but we are moving quickly now.

      1. I should mention that you don’t have to wait for the book to see our solution to the problem of incorporating species similarity (or gene sequence similarity) into the diversity concept. See:
        Chao, A., Chiu, C.-H., & Jost, L. (2010) Phylogenetic diversity measures based on Hill numbers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 365: 3599-3609.

  11. The toucanet is not to my taste because it’s too lifelike. I think the ocelot painting is truly gorgeous. It’s rather like we would actually see the animal in the first few instants – detail on the face, but less so around. I don’t know if that was the intention, but I sure like it.

    1. Thanks, I agree with you that the best paintings have an element of “painterliness”, a sort of spontaneous playfulness and suggestiveness in some parts of the painting. I do like to make sure the focus of my painting is mostly realistic, but I like to lose my control and improvise as the rest of the painting progresses. Sometimes, though, that only happens in small parts of the painting–in this case, some of the periphery of the bird is more suggestive than literal, but this is not very noticeable.

  12. There are orchids with still smaller flowers. Some Oberonia species, for example, have flowers of only one millimeter across. But the vegetative parts are bigger than those of the Platystele.

    In New Guinea there are leafless orchids in the genera Taeniophyllum and Microtatorchis which may be even smaller than any Platystele in terms of biomass, as they only consist of a few roots.

    1. That is right. In reality there is no single “smallest orchid”. Oberonia flowers are even smaller, but the plants are quite large. Most record books treated Platystele jungermannioides as the world’s smallest orchid, and this new one has smaller flowers. That is all.

Leave a Reply