The Kiwi native you should really love

Taken in parts, it is a thing of beauty.

Feathery antennae. Shiny, spiky egg-injecting ovipositor. Coal black compound eyes. Up close, and balanced on someone else's hand, the giant weta is more glorious than grotesque.

Turn off the lights. At 6am, in the dark of winter, you can hear them moving. Eating. Rustling. "Pooing," says Don McFarlane, Auckland Zoo's ectotherms team leader.

"They produce the largest faecal pellet of any insect. When it hits the deck, it bounces. You can hear it ricochet. Or, some cases, dollop, depending what they ate."

Here in this temperature-controlled portacom at the back of the zoo's Te Wao Nui "living realm" exhibit, keepers are breeding the country's largest giant weta, the weta punga, for release on to pest-free islands in the Hauraki Gulf.

Three hundred of the creatures were shipped out last month. Another 100 are scheduled for release in the next few weeks.

At Massey University in Palmerston North, a website, the "WetaGeta" has been launched to help Kiwis - and researchers - find out more about this ancient insect unique to our shores.

The weta is, as they say in fashion circles, having a moment. So how come so many of us still hate them?

The word weta is commonly translated as "the god of ugly things". Nowhere is this more supported than on the internet. It stars on a blog dedicated to "giving ugly animals their day in the sun". It gets an outing on a forum dedicated to dream interpretation. What, asks a reader, does it mean if a weta, "a horrible, ugly, bush-type insect" is coming towards you? (Breathe easy. It's just a reminder from your unconscious mind that you are being distracted from focusing your attention on an important goal.

It's a rare Kiwi who cannot relate a weta encounter. The one that lives in the mailbox. The one the cat dragged in (felines, rats and hedgehogs are voracious predators of the weta). The one that took up residence underneath the cushion of the couch on the back porch. Is there a farmer who doesn't know the distinctive feel of foot-meets-weta in the gumboot at the back door?

And that, says Steve Trewick, Massey University evolutionary biologist, is just one more reason to love them.

"We don't get to see kiwi, and we don't get to see half the birds and we don't get to see tuatara. But we do get to see weta because they come into our space. People from other parts of the world go ‘oh, that's amazing, what a great insect' because they don't see creatures like that."

But Trewick says scientists also know how little they actually know about this country's insects. "People talk about going off to the Amazon or Borneo to find new species. In New Zealand, you've just got to walk into the bush . . ."

Trewick and his wife Mary Morgan-Richards recently turned up new species of cave weta in Palmerston North, and on the West Coast's Denniston Plateau. The latter, he says, is beautiful. "It's black and it's got a white splodge on its head and it's really distinctive. You could never miss it, and yet somehow people did."

Two new weta, says Trewick, without trying particularly hard.

"There is oodles of diversity out there and lots to be done and almost everyone's ‘back yard' will have some distinctive species and some interesting ecology going on that's waiting to be understood."

The WetaGeta website encourages people to post photos and use a series of simple questions to help determine what kind of weta they've found.

There are five broad types - the tree, ground, giant and tusked. The cave weta belongs to a different family. Across those categories, there are at least 100 different species, some of which are confined to very limited geographic range.

How long have they been here? "There is this suggestion they are very ancient," says Trewick, "But that's almost entirely because of a fossil that's in Australia, that has weta-like characteristics. It's about 190 million years old, and it shows that weta-like creatures have been around a long time, but there's nothing to say that particular thing is very closely related to weta, because weta are just part of that group called orthoptera, which also includes crickets and katydids and grasshoppers."

He says it's not the creature's age that's important - it's the high diversity of the species recorded here. Trewick says New Zealand lacks many of the plants and animals common in neighbouring Australia and "there's an implication" that weta evolved to fill some of the ecological space.

"There are leaf eaters and predators, there are ones living in the ground, there are some in trees. Some use their bodies and drum to each other at night to find mates and there are others that rub their legs together. There are ones that eat small bits of anything they can find, and others that are hunters.

"That diversity is not just a whim, for fun. It has evolved in New Zealand because of the opportunities that are available."

Trewick is particularly interested in finding out more about the cave weta, some of which are fingertip small - and most of which do not live in caves.

"You could say it's just a bug. But for us, there's a fundamental interest in understanding the world around us. The problem with insects is a lot of the time, people don't see them, or they're not aware of them, and when they do, they're shocked or surprised or sometimes revolted. Why? Maybe because they seem so alien. If you compare the popular animals that people like, with the childlike faces, the puppies and kittens, and then you go look at a spiky, six-legged weta . . . They look weird, they don't fit with anything that's normal for people. They're out in the dark, and many of us are afraid of the dark."

And those ones in the gumboot? Tree weta, says Trewick, are the main offenders. "One of the reasons they're so successful is they make the most of opportunities. They go wandering around, they want to mate, they want to find food. But then it's absolutely critical they find somewhere that's safe to hide during the day. So they're wandering by people's houses, and it starts to get light - and of course people leave their gumboots out the back."

At Auckland Zoo, in the dim light of the nocturnal native display, you have to look hard to find the seven giant weta that live in a glass box opposite the kiwi. Out back, in the portacom labelled "native species isolation unit one" they're everywhere. In 2012, the Department of Conservation allowed the translocation of six male and six female weta punga, the giant species endemic to Little Barrier Island. The subsequent breeding programme has been described as an "unprecedented success".

"We've done so well," says McFarlane, "we actually had to put eggs in the fridge to cause a stasis, to stop development. It takes a single keeper three days of the week to service all of these insects - cleaning, feeding, keeping on top of the numbers."

It's exactly 20.2 degrees Celsius in the portacom. At night, it will drop to a set 16°C. There's a dehumidifier in the corner, and an earthy smell pervades. Forty red and blue lidded Tupperware containers, each containing a single weta, line one wall. In the centre, metallic mesh enclosures house small groups of the insect. They have dead fern fronds to hide in, and fresh native greenery and fish flakes to eat. There's a higher mortality rate in the communal cages, because, "weta tend to cannibalise one another, especially after they moult".

Moults are recorded in black marker pen on the tupperware lids. Weta begin life as an egg, about half the size of a grain of rice. As they grow, their skins split open, up to 10 times in a life cycle. The nutrient-rich exoskeleton is usually eaten.

The giant weta the zoo is rearing for transfer are the world's heaviest insect, weighing in at up to 35 grams (historically, one egg-laden female has been recorded at 71g).

"We spend a lot of our time here trying to convince Kiwis to be proud of their weta, because they are found nowhere else," says McFarlane.

"A lot of fear comes from ignorance. You look at an animal like this and you assume many things. Perhaps that it would bite you, or sting you, or cause you harm. But in actuality, no. I say that with some caution though, because they are capable of giving you a nip. In most cases they're just seeing whether you're edible and they quickly realise you're not. They're herbivores, predominantly. And the thing that is thought of as a sting is an ovipositor, for laying eggs."

How hard can a weta bite? The one on McFarlane's hand obliges by drawing blood as he holds it for the camera. He flinches, but is not scared. This job, says the former London Zoo employee who has been here four months, is a dream come true. "I first read about weta at uni - they're a legendary animal."

Sunday Star Times