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

Last updated 10:27 07/06/2012

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. 

Weta wellywood sign - artist impression

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 arHemideina broughi - massive tree weta at Denniston Plateaue 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?

- Stuff

32 comments
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Karlos   #1   11:42 am Jun 07 2012

Interesting.

I found one under the BBQ cover at the start of BBQ season last year so I gave her a lift to the nearest tree. This one was only a baby though compared to some photos I've seen!

Niri Tacen   #2   11:48 am Jun 07 2012

My most recent Weta experience was when the cat bought one inside. Living the in middle of Auckland I'd hoped we wouldn't have this problem, but she managed to find one.

Luckily they're tough little guys, and I was able to catch her (the Weta - it was a girl) in a jar and take her outside to make her escape. I hope she went on to live a good Weta life.

ch   #3   11:59 am Jun 07 2012

I had never really come across a weta till recently - was tending to my kumera plants and found a little baby weta amongst the leaves. Was admiring it then got a fright when I noticed it's Mummy only a couple of inches away - and she was about 10 times bigger. Very true what you say about people with kids finding them fascinating - straight away I got the troup outside to have a look. I think its important for us not to be scared of insects around our kids, my mum was pathetic around spiders and I still have issues with them to this day. Doing my best not to pass it on!

mark schumacher   #4   12:41 pm Jun 07 2012

Lol :) @ the pic. A giant flying weta could be somewhat daunting, but the one in the other pic looks friendly enough. What a great idea having a Nature blog - long may it continue.

"Ovipositor", immmmm, what does the male have, a "depositer?"

Jenna   #5   01:04 pm Jun 07 2012

Unfortunately my last two weta experiences involved our cat bringing then inside through the cat door. Both were rescued and put outside (by my partner lol) but not sure how traumatized they were by our wee cat/insect torturer.

marcia   #6   01:25 pm Jun 07 2012

The last close encounter a weta and I had was pulling back the sheet to discover a grumpy insect clinging for his life - I must admit I did give a small shriek, but got over myself, picked him up and gently put he or she out the window - they are most fascinating and always good to shake out of your gumboot !!

FDO   #7   01:30 pm Jun 07 2012

I was always terrified of them as a kid. We lived in the bush and did used to get quite a few inside. It's the fear factir that tends to do it... I'm now a lot better and can move them if necessary. The defining moment came when I was pulling dead cabbage tree leaves off the bottom of the tree and a weta fell out and landed on my face and half on my glasses. It gave me a hell of a start (a weta on my face not something I've ever really wanted to experience) but actually I felt sorry for the poor beast and was able to remove it without harming it... since then I've been much better with them. I hate to kill or harm anything and the weta is pretty fascinating.

Argon   #8   01:38 pm Jun 07 2012

Always thought it was cool that they can survive being frozen over winter! ('cuse the pun)

K   #9   01:43 pm Jun 07 2012

I opened my front door recently to find a weta had been hiding under the flap at the bottom of the door. It got more of a fright than I did at being suddenly and unceremoniously dumped on my hallway floor, and it stuck its back legs up in the air and hissed loudly at me. Didn't look any less angry at me as I carefully put it back out, either!

bug-ger me!   #10   01:57 pm Jun 07 2012

I recently found a large weta chap (could've been a chapette but I didn't know about the ovipositer situation) roaming around our bathroom so I opened the window and gently 'flicked' him out. It made a really interesting chirping/hissing sort of sound as it stalked off. I didn't realise they made any noise?


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