A weta in my gumboot (and other stories)...

One of the uniquely kiwi experiences many of us face at some time or other is that surprising feeling when you come face to face (or foot to face if you find one in your gumboot!) with that dinosaur of the insect world, our native weta.

There are a range of different species of weta in New Zealand. The one that you'll be most familiar with is probably the tree weta - that's the slightly aggro looking one that will race out on end of a tree-branch to gnash its terrible teeth (jaws actually) at you. Don't worry though, they very rarely bite, and I can certainly attest (having been bitten) that it doesn't hurt (much!).

Despite their sometimes fearsome reputation, weta are pretty iconic in New Zealand.  Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor famously named their digital and special studios for the weta and based on that and perhaps the prevalence of the Wellington tree weta in the capital, one of the suggestions for the awful "Wellywood" sign was this one - an enormous weta crawling over the hillside - which probably would have raised a smile with kiwis and terrified our tourists. 

When it comes to the biology of the weta - there's all sorts of weta-tastic stuff that they can do.  For starters, they've been around for over a hundred million years. We have somewhere between 70 and 100 species of weta in New Zealand. All are flightless and nocturnal and since New Zealand had no native land mammals (except for bats), weta have always filled the role of rodents in New Zealand. Sadly, the rodents are also their downfall, with rats particularly chowing down on them and making conspicuous species like the giant weta (which to a rat must be like eating a turkey dinner) almost extinct on mainland New Zealand.

In the absence of predators like rats, weta can grow to huge sizes. Our giant weta are insect heavyweights, with one female weighing in at 71g (three times heavier than a mouse). It seems the larger they get, the more chilled out they are - most of the giant weta are very docile.

It's not just the giant weta though - a species of tree weta found at the Denniston Plateau (which has very few predators due to the harsh climate and altitude) is simply enormous. According to scientists present at the recent bioblitz up there, the weta's size and the fact that their treeholes are found so close to the ground was very surprising and a good sign (in most of New Zealand they'd be cleaned out by rodents).  These tree weta are almost the size of some of our giant weta - and as I found, modelling them on your head looks like one mighty case of headlice!

Actually, if you look closely at the one I'm sporting on my head, you can immediately tell it's a female.  That's because you can see her ovipositor sticking out of her backside.  This is often mistaken for a sting, but is merely a kind of slide for her eggs, so that she can safely deposit them into the ground.

Rather than being feared, more and more people (especially with kids) are becoming fascinated with weta - and one way that you can watch them is to build a 'weta motel' (from the very simple to the 5-star version), a safe place for them to hide out in during the day.

The last time I found a weta at home was when one had snuck in through our bedroom window and was clinging to the curtains.  What was your last weta experience? Was it frightening or fascinating?

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