The white fringeless orchid—platathera—is a rare species.

The yellow fringed orchid—platanthera cristata—is a common species.

One plant over here. Lots of them, spread out all over the place.

Another plant over here. Cousin to the one over there. Very few of them. In fact, very few of them anywhere in the world.

So what’s up?

That’s what Dr. Jennifer Boyd and researchers from four other universities are trying to find out through a $1.1 million grant the group recently received from the National Science Foundation. The research team—which includes faculty from Austin Peay University, the University of Georgia, Seton Hill University and Oxford University in England—will spend the next four years, perhaps more, studying the phenomenon, hoping to come up with answers.

“It’s kind of a chicken-and-the-egg argument,” says Boyd, an associate professor of biology at UTC. “You have these rare species and they’re found in these very small populations usually, just a few individuals here or a few individuals there. If you only have a few individuals you’re probably not going to have a lot of genetic diversity.

“Are they rare because they don’ t have genetic diversity or do they not have genetic diversity because they’re rare?”

For its end of the research, UTC received about $500,000 of the grant, says Boyd, who originally proposed the study. The money also will pay for three undergraduate and two graduate students to participate in the research each year, she says.

While Boyd is an ecological physiologist who will examine the plant’s physical attributes as part of the study, the three U.S. researchers—all women—are geneticists who’ll look down to the DNA level. The man at Oxford is a mathematician.

“He’s going to try to build equations that predict whether a species will be rare or common based on its ability to adapt and acclimate,” Boyd says. “You could take a species, study its genetic diversity or do some acclimation work with it, then predict from that what would we expect to be happening in the real world.”

Dr. Jennifer Boyd

The team is studying six different plants, two of each kind, one rare, one common. For instance, the white fringeless orchid is rare while its brethren, the yellow fringed orchid, is common. Each species is on the endangered list or has recently been removed from it. The plants will be grown in UTC growth chambers then sent to the other researchers, Boyd says.

The major focus of the study is the plants’ ability for “adaptation” and “acclimation,” she says. Adaptation is the evolution of each plant, has it been in its environment long enough for its DNA to actually change.

“To adapt you need to have genes somewhere in your population that are going to make you fit (in the environment) and you’re going to pass it on,” Boyd says. “Maybe rare species can’t adapt very well. Maybe their gene pool is very limited. … You might not be able to adapt.”

Acclimation, meanwhile, is a plant’s ability to basically get used to its environment; can it adjust to changes in its environment?

“Plants tend to have a pretty high ability to adjust because they can’t get up and move if conditions get bad,” Boyd explains. “They have to be able to kind of sit and take whatever comes at them. My thinking, from what I do, is that maybe rare species don’t have that ability to adjust like more common species do.”

The study is not just a hey-let’s-research-this-for-fun pursuit. Learning why some plants are rare and some in the same species is common will help with the conservation of plants in general. If you know a certain plant likes a lot of sun and dry soil while its cousin wants shade and moisture, you can make sure both that, out in the wild, both plants are getting what they need to thrive.

In addition, plants often play a critical role in their personal environment. A plant may be the food source for an insect that is the food source for a mouse that is the food source for a snake. Etc., etc., etc.

“You don’t know what role each of these species plays in the environment. We call it the ‘cascading effect,’” Boyd says.

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