Wild Side: On the hunt

Finding a new grasshopper habitat.

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The once-common, now rediscovered insect of Vineyard grasslands, Encoptolophus sordidus. — Matthew Pelikan

Where have you been all these years, Encoptolophus? That’s what I want to know.

Clouded grasshopper (Encoptolophus sordidus), a boldly marked, grayish insect, turned up in a bluestem meadow last Saturday as I was bug-hunting in Edgartown. It called attention to itself by crepitating — that is, rattling its wings in flight — as it flew away from the disturbance my presence caused. A number of our grasshoppers crepitate, but this one caught my attention because its overall color created an impression unlike that of any other species I’m familiar with.

Before I got into photo range, that first clouded grasshopper proved to be wary and a strong flier. But it had the genial habitat of landing upright on a stalk of bluestem grass, 18 inches or so off the ground, which made it easy to relocate and, with enough chasing, finally photograph. On searching the area, I found a couple of dozen more; this was clearly a population, not just an individual vagrant.

Strange, then, that I had never before encountered the species. It’s an obvious one, easy to detect. The meadow in which I found it is one I’ve visited scores of times over the years, at all seasons, and often looking specifically for grasshoppers. And I’ve been in similar habitat countless times in other places around the Island. Never so much as a whiff of Encoptolophus.

Neither BugGuide.net nor iNaturalist.org, the two “citizen science” databases I use most often for insect identification, showed any records at all for Massachusetts. The closest either put this species to Martha’s Vineyard was central Rhode Island (a single record in iNaturalist). Records become more frequent north and west of there, and as far as I can tell, it’s fair to say that the clouded grasshopper is an insect mainly of the interior Northeast.

This doesn’t, of course, prove the complete absence of this species in Massachusetts; largely it just reflects where folks with an interest in grasshoppers have been looking. But enough such folks are out there now so that the absence of Bay State records makes a population on Martha’s Vineyard seem odd, and likely geographically isolated by quite a distance. So what’s it doing here?

A useful clue came from a checklist of Massachusetts Orthoptera that a friend gave me some years back. Compiled from a wide range of sources, many of them old and obsolete, the checklist is more helpful as a historical document than as a guide to current Orthoptera distribution. It cited the 19th century German-Argentine entomologist Hermann Burmeister, who was the first to formally describe the grasshopper now known as Encoptolophus sordidus, as the authority for placing the species in Massachusetts.

With the notion that the species might be rare now, but more abundant historically, I tracked down a 1920 monograph, “A Manual of the Orthoptera of New England,” by Albert P. Morse (1863-1936), obscure now but clearly a formidable naturalist.

It turns out that a century ago, at least in Morse’s estimation, the clouded grasshopper wasn’t just present in our region: It was one of a short list of grasshopper species he deemed abundant enough to cause occasional damage to crops. “Unobtrusive as a clod of the earth itself,” writes Morse, yet “not unattractive,” the species “inhabits all of the New England states” and is known from “many localities in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including Edgartown, on Martha’s Vineyard.”

At which point it all made sense. A grasshopper of dry overgrown pastures and meadows, Encoptolophus was among the beneficiaries of the robust sheep industry that once shaped the landscape of Martha’s Vineyard. Deforestation for grazing of the Island (along with much of mainland New England) created vast tracts of habitat for a species that had probably been quite local before European settlement. Morse’s observations took place at a time when the legacy of that history, in the form of meadows and grassland, still prevailed.

Since then, grazing has all but halted, wildfire has been stifled, and most of the landscape has either regrown into oak woodland or been appropriated for human use (neither of which provide viable habitat for clouded grasshoppers). The population of Encoptolophus I stumbled onto, then, is surely a remnant of a much larger population, living on the lam, undetected, for decades on the Vineyard’s south shore. Ongoing agricultural use plus deliberate ecological management have maintained just enough of a home for this rather finicky grasshopper to persist.

The apparent rarity of clouded grasshopper in today’s Massachusetts, then, is likely real. Regionally, the preferred habitat of this insect is limited, probably still shrinking, and desperately fragmented. But significant tracts remain on the Vineyard, treated sensibly by humans across the decades and supporting a steadily shifting network of unobtrusive Encoptolophus populations. The grasshoppers I met, in short, were an old Island family.