Last summer, students Adrian Bethel and recent graduate Lauren Sloyer ’19 battled mobs of mosquitoes and black flies, scouring the Apostle Islands for a rare broad-leaved twayblade orchid named Neottia convallaroidies. The western orchid is listed as threatened in Wisconsin, the eastern edge of its range, and likely extinct in Minnesota.
Assistant Professor of Natural Resources Sarah Johnson ’02 and her teams of students have been collecting data on thirty-two plants in the Apostle Islands—an update to a 1992 survey. The twayblade orchid has been a target species for three teams of students in recent years, and “lore of the orchid hunt keeps evolving among my students,” Johnson said. “From steep terrain, miles of hiking, and torrential downpours, every crew has confirmed that the orchid hunt is one of the most challenging field gigs I’ve tasked them with.”
After being dropped on Oak Island by the National Park Service, along with their camping and research gear, Bethel and Sloyer, both forestry majors, hiked for hours seeking the elusive orchids, mostly in wetlands. Like Johnson, Bethel has discovered he likes looking down at the forest floor thinking about how plants connect, adapt, disappear.
On the island, lumbermen from another era dynamited out the bottoms of the ravines to create a luge for logs. Now, hemlocks and yellow birch trees tower over these log-scoured ravines, casting a deep shade over scattered mats of orchids. Shifting sediments from torrential storms may bury orchids in some places, but create new habitat elsewhere. They counted thousands of plants, took size measurements, and assessed which ones were reproductive versus sterile.
Bethel says when he was looking for colleges, his grandfather, a professor of art history, told him if he was interested in forestry, he should try to find a place that would help him think outside the box. The twayblade orchid, in particular, has captured his imagination. “It’s so interesting to think about how they got here and how they move,” Bethel said.
Bethel presented the findings of the research team to the Wisconsin Science Conference in Elkhart Lake in February and received honorable mention for his presentation of the poster, co-authored by Sam Tharpgeorge ’18. Bethel was able to attend with scholarships from the Wisconsin Wetland Association and the Robert Rue Parsonage Fund.
Johnson’s orchid hunters have found fewer orchids in the sites where orchids existed in the 1992 survey but they found nine new sites with numerous orchids. What the data suggest, is that as northern Wisconsin experiences extreme drought and wet periods, orchids decline, rebound, and move locations.
Like others before them, Bethel and Sloyer bushwacked through the ravines searching for signs. “Sometimes, we’d find them dispersed like bread crumbs along the length of the stream and other times they formed dense bright green carpets along a wide wash,” said Sloyer, who graduated in December.
“Though I can confidently say that I’ve seen enough of the Oak island ravines for a lifetime,” Sloyer said. “knowing we were contributing valuable data about the species population dynamics across the National Lakeshore—plus Sarah Johnson’s oatmeal monster cookies—made it all worth it.”