Not fluffy or popular but endemic!
By Cushla McGaughey
NZ’s Giant Weta, the world’s largest insect, is more than 3 times the size of a mouse. Just as well weta can’t fly, either!
Weta are neither fluffy nor popular. In fact, the name weta derives from wetapunga, meaning “god of ugly things”.
Yet, with ancestors dating back to dinosaur times, weta are among the elite of our native species: they are endemic – species found only in New Zealand.
The formidable looking Tree Weta
The Tree Weta is distinguished by the male’s massive head. He lives in a hole in a branch or tree trunk with up to 10 females, but even so, his lot is not a happy one.
Formidable though he looks, he needs all his survival gear when he ventures out to forage at night, braving moreporks and geckos, as well as any nocturnal, tree-climbing mammals on the hunt.
His large compound eyes can see in very low light intensity, while his two long, flexible antennae can swivel in all directions, substituting touch for sight in pitch darkness. He has ears on his front legs and, at the other end of his body, a pair of sense organs that can detect vibrations to warn of anything approaching from behind.
He has large, spiny hind legs, which can be raised defensively. Females have what looks like a sizeable sting, but which is actually an ovipositor, used only for pushing eggs into the soil.
Despite their fearsome appearance, tree weta use their powerful jaws and strong teeth to feed harmlessly on the leaves, flowers and fruit of a wide variety of plants.
Any claim to their being pollinators is not generally upheld, but they are acknowledged as important seed dispersers, playing a part in the forest ecology.
The larger the weta, the more seeds they can disperse over longer distances. So looks certainly aren’t everything!