Martha's Vineyard Atlas of LifeSpecies Lists“Island Life” Introduction and EssaysIsland Life: Introduction


Introduction (2008)

The purpose of this book is to provide inventories of the natural world on Martha’s Vineyard Island for several categories of readers: 1.) visitors to the island that have an interest in one or more of the categories discussed; 2.) resident students of any age; 3.) persons involved in habitat management on either public or private property; and 4.) persons involved in municipal conservation and planning activities. School-age students may be the most important readership, since they are more likely to be the stewards of this special place in the long run. It is hoped that some among them may take a particular interest in one or more of the parts of our natural world and contribute additional information to that presented here. 

Martha’s Vineyard Island lies about three miles south of Woods Hole, Cape Cod, at Latitude 41° 18′ 04″  to 41° 28′ 50″ North and Longitude 70° 27′ 24″  to 70° 50′ West. Its greatest length east to west is 20.5 miles (33 km) and greatest width north to south is 9.375 miles (15.1 km). Total surface area is 61,127 acres (24,737 ha) or 95.5 square miles (247.4 square km). Elevation ranges from sea level to 311 feet (102 m) at Peaked Hill in the Town of Chilmark. Average annual precipitation in the 1971-2000 period has been 42.5 inches (1.08 m); the highest precipitation months are usually November and January and the lowest are usually July and June, in that order. Mean monthly Fahrenheit temperatures in the 1971-2000 period have been:

        January    29°      April  48°     July             73°      October        54°

        February  32°      May   58°     August        72°      November    44°

        March      39°      June   68°     September   64°      December    34°

The island’s resident human population grew slowly from 1900 to 1960, increasing only from 4,397 to 5,763. It began to grow more rapidly in the 1970s and increased from 6,034 in 1970 to 8,879 in 1980, and to 11,541 in 1990. It rose 29% from 12,080 in 1994 to 15,582 by the end of 2004. Peak population on many summer days now reaches over 75,000 (Martha’s Vineyard Commission fact sheet).   

This book is a work very much in progress. Though much has been learned, we know that there is much more to discover. This book is just a scorecard in a game that is probably no more than half over. We hope that as time passes, this book will encourage new research and the examination of additional parts of our natural world here. We have not tried to cover all groups; for example, the Insects are a huge group of animals where we have only scratched the surface and treated only a few of the more conspicuous and easily-studied groups. Hopefully, future editions of this work will bring this first effort at a catalog to a level of greater completeness and perhaps, greater detail. 

At the outset it needs to be mentioned that the biological classification (taxonomic) system used here will not be familiar to those of us who studied biology 20 or more years ago. Since that time there has been a veritable revolution in the understanding not only of the evolutionary process itself but in the definition of groups of organisms. Consequently, we have followed the most recent comprehensive treatment of biological classification we know of, Five Kingdoms by Margulis and Schwartz (1998). For those interested in reading a recent treatment designed for the layman of the evolutionary rationale that underlies Margulis and Schwartz’ work, we strongly recommend What Evolution Is (Mayr, 2001).   

The plan of this book is to describe the geological history of the island first. Part of that history is related to the appearance of fossil-bearing clay strata at the Gay Head cliffs, a unique site in all of New England. We list as much of the described fossil fauna from those cliffs as we have been able to find. In recent years almost no new work has been done on the fossil record at the cliffs, which is regrettable. Perhaps this book will stimulate more work being done or bring to light studies that we did not find.        

The chapters about the living species follow a similar pattern. At the beginning of each there is a short essay which may discuss the evolutionary origin of the group of organisms that follows, some comments about the nature of the information available, and where possible a discussion of the zoogeographical or phytogeographical affinities of the species listed. Martha’s Vineyard lies at a climatological transition point on the east coast of North America. As will be seen, some groups of species found on the island are more related to the northern component of the total species of that group. In other cases, the species that are known from the island are more representative of southern elements within the total species group. To the extent possible, this issue is discussed in the Overview chapter. 

Another element of each chapter will be to provide up-to-date references to the published literature for each group so that a student wishing to pursue any subject in greater depth will at least know where to start. The scope of this book does not permit an exhaustive treatment of any species group. We just provide an introduction, hoping to open the door to each subject, to get each student started along the path.

In some cases the opportunity will be taken to describe special features or peculiarities of the list of species. This will most often be the case for mobile species such as certain insects (e.g., butterflies, odonates) and vertebrates (e.g., birds). Suggestions for additional study or research are also made.  

As in any enterprise of this kind, we hope that corrections or additional information will be brought to our attention. There are mistakes in this book, we just don’t know where they are!

Allan Keith; edited by Matt Pelikan, July 18, 2022