Alex Hirtz is a renowned orchid explorer from Ecuador who has been involved in the discovery of over 1,000 new species. He has many diverse and eclectic interests, is president of the Fundacion Botanica de Los Andes, and is a fascinating man with a great sense of humour. Alex told me about his theory of rapid evolution, and at first I could hardly believe what I was hearing. He believes that an explosion in the evolution of certain genus’ of orchids is taking place in the neotropics of South America, and that these entirely new orchids are emerging in only a few decades and colonizing previously explored areas.
Why? The neotropical forests of Ecuador and Columbia are some of the
most bio-diverse regions in the world because of extremes in terrain
and an extraordinary number of microclimates. The forests – or what’s
left of them – are closed systems and extremely overcrowded with
different varieties of plant life. Alex believes that these unique
conditions are spurring sudden evolution as plants fight to compete and
survive. Further, he speculates that the insects that pollinate the
orchids are evolving at an equally rapid rate.
There is no question that new orchids are being discovered at an
extraordinary pace (many of them thanks to Alex), and frequently in
places that have already been thoroughly botanized. Half of the new
discoveries in last 30 years, like phrag. Kovachii and besseae, have
highly sought-after blooms that are brightly coloured and easy to spot.
Many have been found near populated areas and well-traveled roads. It’s
unthinkable that they would have been missed by earlier collectors. In
the case of some new discoveries, such as Epibator hirtzii, the plants
now cover many trees in forested areas where they did not exist five
years ago. Some, like phrag. besseae, are now even relatively common in south-east Ecuador and north-west Peru.
What’s more, he believes that the sudden mutations of new orchids
occurs in groups of four. For example Teagueia, which is an entirely
new genus, has four species that he belives have a common ancestor:
alyssana, jostii, sanchezia, and pailini. He also believes that the
discoveries of phragmipedium dalessandroi, besseae, and kovachii are
related, and that one more spectacular species will be discovered in
the next few decades to complete the group. As someone later pointed
out during the question and answer period of his presentation, four is
a common number in the production and division process of genetic
Rapid evolution of new species during my lifetime? It sounds like an
idea out of science fiction. DNA and mitochondrial research that would confirm or refute this theory is in its infancy in the field of orchids, but I’m
persuaded. This is a man who lives in Ecuador, who is responsible for
the discovery of over 1,000 new species, and who is in a position to
know. It wouldn’t be the first time a dramatic new theory was dismissed
by other experts as far-fetched!
It occurs to me that it may not be simple coincidence that so many of
these new discoveries have spectacular blooms – the very thing that
makes human beings trip over themselves to own, nurture, and reproduce
them. Very clever, these orchids.