Chloealtis: To find the grasshopper, you must be the grasshopper

Everything you wanted to know about Chloealtis.

The male Chloealtis. –Photos Matt Pelikan

About six years ago, I began the long-term project of trying to learn what I could about the Vineyard’s orthoptera — that is, its crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers. While a number of casual reports of these insects existed at the time, I was (and still am) unaware of any other serious, sustained effort to study them here. With little information to guide my efforts, then, my study has blundered along as clumsily as any project where you have to figure it all out yourself.

Over the years, though, I’ve come across bits and pieces of useful information: Existing Vineyard reports, checklists for regions that implicitly include the Vineyard, various aids for identification. Perhaps the most welcome of such discoveries were a couple of boxes of orthoptera specimens taken in 1992 by the local biologist and educator Kendra Buresch. Working for the Nature Conservancy at the time, Kendra snagged these at various Conservancy properties as part of a broader survey of plants and animals.

The specimens were never identified, but were kept well mounted, well preserved, and well labeled as to their places and dates of origin. When I stumbled over the boxes in the Conservancy’s local office a few years ago, I recognized a lot of species that I had grown familiar with — but also found a type of cricket and two species of grasshopper that I hadn’t yet found.

Since then, I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to locate those species again. I’ve visited the sites where the specimens were taken; I’ve read up on the habitat preferences of these species, and targeted areas where I thought they’d feel at home. Finally, I concluded that they were at best rare and, more likely, entirely gone from the Island, victims of habitat loss and fragmentation.

I recently discussed one of these species, Chloealtis conspersa, with a friend in an altogether different region who is familiar with this wide-ranging grasshopper. He gave me a detailed description of the setting in which he tends to find them: the narrow bands of shrubby vegetation that often exist along the line where woodland and open habitats meet.

His description made me think of a place where I’ve spend relatively little time hunting grasshoppers: The vegetation along the fire lanes in Correllus State Forest, which I had considered too dominated by woody vegetation to be good grasshopper habitat. (It’s a rookie mistake that I keep making, despite my experience: assuming that I have a better sense of habitat quality than my quarry does!) Accordingly, I’ve walked a lot of fire lanes the past couple of weeks, mostly looking downward for small projectiles of escaping grasshopper.

And I’m happy to report that I found chloealtis! It’s a distinctive species, especially the males, which have reddish legs and are entirely black on the sides of the thorax. About a week ago, I glimpsed these unmistakable field marks. But the grasshopper was elusive: The little devils tend to land vertically on plant stems, and if you try to approach into camera range, they shinny backward down the stem and disappear from view. I spent an enormously frustrating 10 minutes or so chasing that grasshopper, finally losing contact with it before I lined up even a crummy photograph.

This “sight record” proved to me that the species survives on the Vineyard. But physical evidence was needed, and I returned to the same area the next day and worked it hard. I found three more chloealtis: a male that, like the first one, shinnied backward down a goldenrod stem into oblivion; a female, of which I managed a few bad but diagnostic photos; and finally a gorgeous male that I was able to herd out onto the open sand of the fire lane and photograph at my leisure.

There are several lessons here. One I’ve already mentioned: Don’t assume you know more about being a grasshopper than a grasshopper does. A second one is related: With insects, habitat preferences can be very specific indeed. Chloealtis, evidently, likes not just scrub oak barrens generally, but a very narrow subset of the types of vegetation that are available in that general habitat. This means that until you’ve identified and explored every conceivable micro-niche, you haven’t really exhausted the possibilities for finding orthoptera.

A final lesson is to cast your net broadly when you seek information to guide an insect study. It was a 20-year-old box of dead insects that alerted me to the possibility of chloealtis on the Vineyard. And it was advice from a guy in the Middle West that zeroed me in on the place to find them.

The Vineyard status of this species, which is widespread across the northern United States and southern Canada, remains a bit of a puzzle. It can’t be truly common, or I would have run into it previously, despite its finicky nature. But because I hadn’t been looking in the right place, it may be appreciably more numerous here than my limited records suggest. I expect I’ll be shuffling along a lot more fire lanes this summer, trying to figure it out.