WORLD’S HEAVIEST INSECT

The Giant Weta is definitely an odd creature. Native to New Zealand, it can grow to the size of a mouse making it one of the largest insects alive.

Weighing as much as 35 grams, the weight of a sparrow, the Giant Weta is also the heaviest insect in the world!  Because of their size, Giant Wetas have been called New Zealand’s native rodent because they forage in a similar manner. In contrast, the smallest Nelson Alpine Weta weighs just 7 grams.

Image processed by Color Factory 1/09/2009 ( 1:59:25 p.m. ) - Channel Name 3_FFXNZ_Colour_RGB_2_CMYK

CURIOUS ANATOMY

My first encounter with a Giant Weta made my skin crawl. They look frightening and can cause painful scratches if they feel threatened but when I was told they are otherwise harmless and can’t fly or jump I looked closer and became fascinated with this iconic insect. It’s not only large, it’s also very odd. This insect’s ears are located on its knees, just below the front knee joints, and it breathes through its skeleton. Like the country’s national symbol, the flightless Kiwi, wetas are shy, preferring to avoid human contact so they are hard to find during daylight hours. Maybe that’s just as well for the feint-hearted who enjoy bush walks in the areas where the giant insect can be found.weta2

GOD OF UGLY THINGS

The Giant Weta’s group name is Deinacrida Connectens which is Greek for “fierce grasshopper” In Maori, weta means, ‘god of ugly things’! Like the tuatara (New Zealand’s prehistoric reptile) the weta is older than the dinosaur. It is estimated these curious insects have been around for 190 million years. They are a member of the cricket family and the resemblance to these common insects is obvious.

Apart from its strange anatomy, the Giant Weta also has unusual eating habits. As well as flowers, seeds, leaves and fruit, it also likes to munch on carrots.  Honestly! Here’s a photo to prove it and note it’s not a piddly little carrot either!

weta carrot

There are 10 types of Giant Weta with the largest known as the Little Barrier Island Weta. Also called ‘wetapunga’ this species is only found on the island it is named after and is currently classified as endangered. Since 2008, in an attempt to establish this species elsewhere, the Department of Conservation has been involved in breeding and releasing them at Butterfly Creek Nature Park and Auckland Zoo where they have become popular attractions and have also flourished. As well as these sanctuaries, in 2011, 50 young adult wetapungas were released on two predator free islands in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park at the head of Auckland Harbour. Adults live for about 9 months so it is hoped they will thrive and set up new colonies to ensure their survival in a natural habitat.

Have a look at a Giant Weta close up in this video:

https://www.tvnz.co.nz/ondemand/meet-the-locals/null/series-s2007-episode-series-1-episode-85

BURNING MAN

A group of Auckland people led by a guy with the colourful name, Hippathy Valentine, got together in a city warehouse to construct a 5m Giant Weta art piece, with flaming antennae, to show off  at this year’s Burning Man Festival held in the Navada Desert. The organizers of Burning Man were so keen to have a representation of New Zealand’s unique Giant Weta at their festival, they chose the project for a 2016 Black Rock City Honoraria Grant so the installation could be shipped across the Pacific. Crowd funding helped raise the $17,000 for the materials. Hippathy hopes to return the art piece to New Zealand and have it displayed at Kiwiburn in 2017.

weta1Giant Weta at Burning Man Festival

OTHER WETA SPECIES

Apart from the Giant Weta, there are round 70 other species. Smaller varieties include the tree, tusked, ground, and the most common cave weta. The alpine weta can freeze solid during the winter and once it thaws in the spring, it carries on with its life–Amazing! The various species of weta are products of New Zealand’s unique evolutionary history, a result of the country’s isolation. Unfortunately, the Department of Conservation has declared 16 of these species to be endangered by human intrusion, especially irrigation and fertilizer use on farms. Rodent invaders are also taking their toll on the weta population.

weta caveCave Weta. Photo: Dr. Paddy Ryan

On a brighter note, new species of weta have been discovered. A carnivorous tusked species was found on Middle Mercury Island off the Coromandel Coast 29 years ago and was given the name “Jaws”. with another species discovered as recently as 1995.

WETA IN BUSINESS

Weta Workshop and Weta Digital were both named after the iconic insect. I guess the award winning creatures the workshop has produced and the stunning special effects created at Weta Digital for over 50 movies, were inspired in some way by this weird but wonderful New Zealand insect!

 

weta33Weta Cave

weta43

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