Confirming the actual species that pollinates the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), deep in the bald cypress swamp is no easy feat, but photographer Mac Stone’s image from Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary did just that. His was one of thousands of entries, submitted by professional and amateur photographers from 93 countries, chosen by the Natural History Museum in London for their 58th annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year award exhibition. The awards are considered to be the Oscars of the wildlife photography world.
Stone, together with Peter Houlihan, had hoped to take the very first photo of a giant sphinx moth pollinating the rare and endangered ghost orchid – something scientists have long suspected happens but something that has never been photographed. Instead, the two National Geographic explorers got a picture of a fig sphinx moth (Pachylia ficus) doing the pollinating. Additionally, they also photographed the giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus) visiting the ghost orchid to feed but not necessarily functioning as a pollinator.
"Corkscrew Swamp's old-growth forest and the myriad mysteries and ecological wonders it holds deserve to be seen and celebrated the world over,” says Stone. “We are so fortunate to get to see and study this remnant stand of ancient subtropical swamp in the heart of the Everglades and on the edge of Naples. I'm honored to have a photograph from Corkscrew awarded in this prestigious competition and it wouldn't have been possible without the dedicated Audubon staff who steward this forest for the public and ecologist and National Geographic Explorer Peter Houlihan, who was my partner in helping unravel the secrets of the Super Ghost."
Stone is an Audubon partner and conservation photographer who was working on a National Geographic Society grant documenting the old-growth swamps left in the United States. Houlihan is a tropical conservation scientist, National Geographic explorer, photographer, and expert on ghost orchid pollination.
“In addition to the fascinating scientific basis of this project and its findings, we saw two key things play out here,” said Shawn Clem, PhD, Director of Research for Audubon Florida's Western Everglades Research Center located at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. “We saw a clear demonstration of the importance of conserving and protecting Florida’s wild places and the true value of the Sanctuary amidst the increasing pressure of a developed landscape. Protected natural lands like Corkscrew are critical for us to hold onto the biodiversity that makes Southwest Florida so special.
Florida’s flora and fauna are facing double jeopardy in the coming decades. Human activities have significantly reduced the quantity and quality of wildlife habitats across Florida, while our changing climate is predicted to make rainfall patterns more inconsistent. These factors, both individually and combined, will certainly make life in the swamp even more difficult.
The 100 winning images, along with the two grand title winners, are on display from October 14, 2022, through July 2, 2023. The exhibition will be displayed alongside insights from Museum scientists and experts, with the goal of leaving visitors with a deeper understanding of the issues facing nature and the actions we need to take to protect it.
Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, recognized as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention and a Wetland of Distinction by the Society of Wetland Scientists, has been an Audubon-protected site for more than 100 years. It conserves over 13,000 acres, including the world’s largest remaining, old-growth bald cypress forest. An estimated 100,000 visitors annually explore the Sanctuary’s 2.25 miles of boardwalk through ancient forest and marsh habitat. Memberships and donations provide crucial support for conservation work at the Sanctuary.