Wild Side: Looking ahead

Specimens to ID, papers to write.

Swarming winged males ants. — Matt Pelikan

The end of one year and the start of the next one offers a moment for assessing the recent past and planning the future, for naturalists no less than for anyone else. I had a rewarding 2017 in the field, and I’m already looking forward to resuming work when conditions warm up in late March or early April. (In the meantime, I suppose I can watch birds!)

In a year featuring many enjoyable moments with insects, a clear high point came in late October, when I found several black-horned tree crickets at Quansoo. (This discovery was the subject of a Wild Side column that ran on Nov. 2.) A strikingly marked member of a group that is already unusual, this species was one I had long sought on the Vineyard. And the way I found it — hearing one through the car window, stopping, and ultimately locating a singing male — produced a moment of something like self-satisfaction. “Wow,” I said. “Have I actually learned something?”

Also satisfying was the first coherent, public presentation of my work on orthoptera to date, in the form of a short presentation delivered at this year’s Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative in early November. The biannual conference brings together a broad selection of biologists and naturalists with interest in the Cape and Islands region, and giving a summary of my research to such a knowledgeable and interested audience was a major step for me. As much as I enjoy studying nature for my own enjoyment, the ultimate purpose of those hours in the field is making whatever I learn available to anyone who can use it.

A ferruginous carpenter ant, Camponotus chromaiodes. – Matt Pelikan

That impulse to share and archive knowledge will, I hope, dominate the first few weeks of 2018. With six years of field work in the can, it’s time to write up the results. My goal is to draft a sort of living document, subject to editing in the future but capturing what I know of the status and distribution of orthoptera on the Vineyard, complete with a summary of how my records are documented. Having it in written form, of course, is insurance against the loss of what’s in my head, if something happens to me. And since it’s clear that the Vineyard’s orthopteran fauna are changing with time, my records may serve as a useful baseline far into the future.

I’m hoping, then, for a dismal couple of months, making it easier to stay at home and apply myself on the computer! But spring will eventually come, and I’m already plotting out my 2018 campaign.

While I feel like I’ve completed the basic purpose of my orthoptera study, begun seven years ago, I will surely continue to accrue records, and there are in particular some loose ends I hope to tie up. The “toothpick grasshopper,” Pseudopomala brachyptera, for example, known here only from a few specimens taken at two south shore locations in the early 1990s: Does this bizarre species, with its ridiculously elongated body and nothing more than little stubs for wings, still occur here? I’ve still got some work to do!

But I’m feeling the urge to take on another large project, and I’m thinking that studying the ants of the Vineyard might do the job. A surprisingly diverse group with members that have adapted to nearly any habitat niche you can point to, ants are important ecological forces due to their abundance, social habits, and energy.

While the orthoptera project was challenging largely because of the dearth of existing information on either what occurs here or how to identify it, our knowledge of ants in the region is comparatively far along. Several studies have been done on the Vineyard, focusing on specific habitat types. And an excellent field guide to the ants of New England was published just a few years ago by a team of authors led by Aaron Ellison.

This brilliant guide takes the information in formal, scientific identification keys and distills it to a level of simplicity that amateurs like me can deploy successfully. It also reports regional ant records down to the county level, meaning that the basis for a pretty solid ant checklist for the Vineyard already exists.

But as always, what’s already known will prove incomplete when somebody — me, in this case — starts looking closely over a long period of time. Obviously, I don’t know what’s out there to learn. But I expect that over time, I can add a few species to the Island list, as well as clarifying where and in what abundance our known ant species occur.

In terms of methodology, moreover, studying ants will require me to step up my game a bit, and I’m looking forward to that challenge. While easy to find, ants are, let’s face it, tiny — too small in most cases for my camera to capture adequate images, and generally too small to make positive identifications with the naked eye. I’ll need to learn how to capture and preserve ants, identifying them and photographing them through a dissecting microscope. Stay tuned!

Thanks to all the readers who have shared my adventures over the past year, and I hope that 2018 brings you a wealth of interesting experiences on the Wild Side.