Rare butterfly orchid

The flowers of Hochstetter's Butterfly-orchid, a newly recognized and exceptionally rare orchid, was discovered on the Azorean island of São Jorge. (Richard Bateman / December 11, 2013)

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An incredibly rare butterfly orchid has been "rediscovered" on a volcano ridge in the Azores, a remote group of European islands, and scientists are naming it after the man who first found it nearly 200 years ago.

The newly discovered Platanthera azorica, described in the journal PeerJ, is in serious need of environmental protection, the study authors write.

The researchers had originally intended to study the orchid species on the Azores, a group of nine islands off the coast of the Iberian peninsula, to understand their origin. They wanted to figure out if the butterfly orchids identified on the island were a single species or really made up of two different populations.

"The Macaronesian islands represent an excellent crucible for exploring speciation," the authors wrote.

As it turns out, they were not just one species - they were three.

Using observation and DNA analysis, the scientists were able to distinguish the Short-spurred butterfly orchid (P. pollostantha) from the Narrow-lipped butterfly orchid (P. micrantha). The Short-spurred species is widely distributed around the nine islands, and the Narrow-lipped species is much rarer – it lives on eight islands but in smaller, scattered populations in laurisilva scrub.

But after exploring remote dwarfed laurisilva forests on a volcanic ridge on the central island of Sao Jorge, the researchers discovered a third species, which they named P. azorica, that appears to live only in that spot.

The scientists named P. azorica Hochstetter’s butterfly orchid, after the German botanist Karl Hochstetter, who found a specimen in 1838 while touring six of the nine islands. But since he didn’t set foot on Sao Jorge, perhaps these exceedingly rare orchids are growing on another island as well.

"P. azorica is arguably Europe’s rarest bona fide orchid species," the authors wrote, "and the almost equally rare P. micrantha is one of the best indicators of semi-natural laurisilva habitats remaining on the Azores. Both species are threatened by habitat destruction and invasive alien plants."