The locust that became extinct

Print edition : July 03, 2020

When Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) died in Cincinnati Zoo (United States) on September 1, 1914, the species became extinct. The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, numbering three to five billion. It was driven to extinction by extensive hunting by European settlers.

The lesser known Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus), a unique insect, succumbed to European colonisation of North America. The greatest congregation of animals ever recorded is a swarm of this locust species, spread over 5,10,000 sq km, in 1875. Less than 30 years later, the species became extinct, the last live specimens being recorded in 1902 in Canada.

Swarms of the Rocky Mountain locust periodically devastated crops in North America throughout the 19th century. The locust ate not only plants but even people’s clothes and sheeps’ wool. Thousands of farm families gave up cultivation. However, unfortunately for the locusts, farmers preferred fertile river valleys, which were their breeding grounds. It has been suggested that ploughing and flooding by settler farmers destroyed the eggs in their breeding grounds. Probably, this is the only example of a pest insect driven to extinction, perhaps inadvertently, by farmers.