Protecting the Mediterranean Biodiversity: Saving the Endangered Robust Orchid in Majorca, Spain

Project location: SPAIN, Majorca
Project start date: January 2013 - Project end date: January 2015
Project number: 2012-050
Beneficiary: Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II


The Robust orchid Anacamptis robusta is among the rarest European plant species and is consequently included in all the national and international lists of species deserving special protection. The only known populations of this rare orchid are confined in a small wetland area of the island of Majorca (Balearic Islands), inside and surrounding s'Albufera de Mallorca Natural Park. The decline of this orchid species is strongly linked with the vulnerability of its marsh habitat. In the 19th century, the wetland was drained and canalized especially by the New Majorca Land Company so that the ecosystem lost most of its marshlands producing a dramatic restriction of the Robust orchid natural habitat. Afterwards, the rapid development of Balearic tourism has further restricted the habitat of this species and the economic pressure for the development of tourism infrastructures is continuously threatening the residual distribution of A. robusta, especially the areal that is external to the Natural Park and remains unprotected. Indeed, more than two-thirds of the population in 2007 (and nearly 80% in 2006) lies in an unprotected area immediately outside the s'Albufera Natural Park boundary, called Son Bosc, which is now threatened by the project of a golf course. The site was given protection as part of the s'Albufera Natural Park in 2003 but was taken out again a few months later by a newly elected Balearic government, which has given the opportunity for a golf course development company to put forward the project. Fortunately, the golf course designation of area has been temporarily suspended.
The planning of a conservation strategy to stop, or even reverse, this route is thus an imperative for the defense of the strongly endangered marsh habitats in the Balearic Islands and the Robust orchid is a priority species for s'Albufera in recognition of its special conservation value (see attached support letters). Additionally, because it is greatly appreciated for its beauty and rarity, it contributes very positively to the public use of the park by the local community, tourists and naturalists.

This project received a grant from the Nando Peretti Foundation. It will address the issue of planning conservation strategies through a combination of different methodological and operational procedures. For planning a conservation strategy is mandatory the knowledge of the endangered taxon in deep detail. Therefore, the first issue of the project will be a fine-scale knowledge of the health conditions of the extant A. robusta populations. This will be achieved using molecular and ecologic methods and will significantly benefit from the long-term observations (about 20 years) of the population demography and dynamics carried out by field ecologists of the Albufera initiative for Biodiversity (TAIB). Specifically, within and among population genetic diversity and gene-flow will be estimated through the use of minisatellites and microsatellites markers already developed by the research unit of the DSFB during the last 10 years of conservation genetic studies on members of the Anacamptis lineage. At the same time, the fine scale population spatial repartition, the reproductive success levels and the pollinator set will be investigated through field surveys.
The results achieved through molecular data and ecological investigations will be then used by applying ecologic niche factor analysis (ENFA) to discover new potential areas on the Majorca Island that could be suitable for reintroduction programs of the Robust orchid. At this regard, genetic and ecological data will be also used to establish protocols for seed bank storage and population genetic improvement.

Over a two years period the following five activities are central to fulfilling the project's overall objective:

Activity 1: Estimation of within/among population genetic diversity and gene-flow

This is one of the main priority objectives in the Conservation Plan of the D. G. Biodiversitat Conselleria de Medi Ambient i Mobilitat of the Balearic Island government in order to determine genetic diversity and the existence of any local populations at risk (see attached support letters). This activity will include a first phase of sample collection that will be conducted during the flowering time of A. robusta. The sampling will regard a large subset of individuals from all the extant populations and will be non-invasive since only small portion of leaves will be collected. Afterwards, the genetic analyses will be conducted in the laboratories of the Dept. of Structural and Functional Biology of Naples University Federico II. This activity will be developed in cooperation with local investigators (see attached support letters).

Activity 2: Monitoring of reproductive success and estimation of pollinator set.

This activity will be conducted by monitoring the whole flowering time of A. robusta. Specifically, a subset of individuals in all the populations will be labelled and flower number will be counted. At the end of flowering time, all the labelled plants will be checked for the presence of fruits. The ratio between number of fruits and number of flowers produced by each individual will be used as an estimation of its reproductive success. At the same time, the pollinator set will be investigated through direct observation and through collection of insects and molecular analyses of pollinaria remains on the insect body. Insect species carrying A. robusta pollinia will be identified through analytical keys.

Activity 3: Monitoring of fine scale spatial repartition of A. robusta residual populations.

This activity will be performed in two following years and carried out through GPS localization of the flowering individuals of A. robusta in the populations to generate highly detailed distribution maps. From these maps, a matrix of geographic distance will be computed with ArcGIS and its correlation with the matrix of genetic distance will be tested by a Mantel test for estimating dispersion ability of the plants and levels of genetic relatedness among individuals within and among populations.

Activity 4: Production of habitat suitability maps for A. robusta

All data relative to spatial distribution will be used to perform Ecological Niche Factor Analysis. This analysis allows the production of habit suitability maps through the comparison of distribution data with ecogeographic variables (as, for instance, humidity, soil type, temperature already available from local conservation and environmental authorities). Habitat suitability maps will be built for the island of Majorca. This will allow the identification of potential areas that may be suitable for the reintroduction of the Robust orchid.

Activity 5: Set up of seed bank storage, reintroduction protocols, genetic improvement of populations and communication strategy

This activity will be carried out by using information gained through the previously described activities for determining genetic diversity of local populations. This will allow to find out from which population seeds should to be collected for seed bank storage and to be used for reintroduction in potential suitable areas individuated through. Then, protocols for A. robusta seed germination and plantlet development will be developed at Dept. of Structural and Functional Biology. At the same time, a genetic improvement program will be planned on the basis of the genetic data gained in the course of the project. Specifically, populations with the lower genetic diversity will be individuated and a specific program of genetic improvement based on pollen donation from more variable populations to the less variable ones will be established.
In the context of this activity, periodic meetings with local stakeholders and conservation authorities will be organized in order to provide the local Institutions with all the results and protocols gained in the course of the project.

Anticipated achievements or outcomes of the Project

The main achievements that this project wants to reach are:
- The assessment of genetic diversity and gene flow of residual populations.
- The assessment of important ecological requirement (above and below ground) for the surviving and health of A. robusta populations.
- The identification of populations to be used as source for reintroductions.
- The identification of potential suitable habitats for A. robusta on the Majorca Island.
- The set up of protocols for reintroduction, genetic improvement and seed bank storage.
Anacamptis robusta shares its marsh habitat with many plant and animal endangered species. Just as an example, the Eleonora's falcon (target of a project funded by the Peretti foundation) lives in the s'Albufera de Mallorca Natural Parc in the same areas where A. robusta grows. Therefore, the conservation plan for the A. robusta population will multiply its effects also on other endangered species living in the same priority habitat. Furthermore, the project has the ambition to become a model for conservation strategies on Mediterranean islands, considered important biodiversity hotspots and thus deserving special attention.

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