A fly in Cuba could be a canary in a coal mine for climate change

Ph.D. student Haydee Borrero studying orchids in Everglades National Park.

Ph.D. student Haydee Borrero studying orchids in Everglades National Park.

FIU researchers have for the first time found fly larvae that feast on the rare Mule Ear Orchid in Cuba, giving them another way to gauge the effect of climate change.

“These flies tend to be very specific where they lay their eggs,” said Ph.D. student Haydee Borrero. “The more you depend on one plant and the pickier you are, the less likely you are to survive climate change.”

It’s no surprise that this particular fly was found on a tropical island home to the largest numbers of the orchid.  Insects and seeds make long journeys carried aloft by strong winds and it is likely that the fly has been in Cuba for a long time. The benefit of knowing the fly is there is that researchers have a way of anticipating what will happen to the flies and Mule Ear Orchids that have made their home in the salt marshes of Florida’s Everglades National Park.

As the climate continues to change, so could the flowering time of the orchid. Flies might miss their chance to lay their eggs in the plant’s stalks, leading to a boom in the number of orchids. As Borrero has found with Hurricane Irma, strong storms might even change the interactions between the fly and orchid.

“It’s interesting if you think this orchid is in danger because of the fly, imagine the danger the fly is in,” Borrero said. “If there’s no more orchid, there’s no more fly.”

Further climate change might point to more Mule Ear Orchids thriving not just in South Florida, but elsewhere in the state.

“South Florida is the northern-most range of this orchid,” Borrero said. “Those northern edges are going to move. If you start looking to the future where Cuba starts to warm a little bit more, the best areas where this orchid could grow will move. Maybe South and Central Florida could become prime real estate for these orchids.”