The Wacky World of New Zealand Wētā

by Helen Cordery

Insects. Love them or hate them, insects are the true owners of our planet and one of the most famous has to be the New Zealand wētā.

If you have ever lifted up old piles of firewood here, you may have come across one of these ferocious-looking insects. You may have noticed – before you ran away – its large mandibles and spiky legs, or its rather disconcerting ‘stinger’ on its rear end. These are all just smoke and mirrors – while New Zealand wētā may look terrifying, they are not actually as fierce as they look. It’s time to go exploring the wacky world of wētā!

Beneath dinosaur feet

It’s true! Fossils have been uncovered of wētā dating back 190 million years! For some perspective, the first age of dinosaurs, the Triassic, was ending and merging into the Jurassic. Some of our most famous dinosaurs such as tyrannosaurus rex and Stegosaurus hadn’t even evolved yet!

New Zealand wētā found themselves evolving once the continents separated, just as our birds and other wildlife did. Without any mammals (besides a few species of bat), the wētā moved down two paths, developing into two families, Anostostomatidae and the Rhaphidophoridae. From these two branches on the family tree, over 100 species of wētā evolved resulting in the eclectic mix you see today.

More than one wētā

Wētā belong to the Orthoptera family of insects and their relatives can be found all over the world. Don’t believe us? If you have ever seen a grasshopper, cricket or locust, then you have seen a distant relative of New Zealand wēta!

Wētā can be grouped into five categories: tusked, tree, cave, giant and ground, but sometimes differences between each species are very slight.

Ferocious fighters?

That depends. Male tree wētā are famously territorial, guarding their harem of females by standing guard and fighting with any male passers-by – it isn’t uncommon for them to lose antennae or two!

However, wētā aren’t really dangerous to humans. While they can give you a hefty nip, they aren’t aggressive and have no stinger at all – that ominous looking spike at the end of their abdomen is actually an ovipositor, which the females uses to lay her eggs. The male has two spikes known as cerci, believed to be sensory organs. Cave wētā, which are the ones with really long skinny legs so that they can jump across the cave, are also completely deaf, and are more terrified of you than you are of them!

The battle between light and dark

According to Māori tradition, once upon a time there were two brothers called Tāne and Whiro. After their parents – land and sky – were separated by the great tree, Tāne Mahuta, Tāne and his brother Whiro (symbolised by the dark) became enemies, each one wanting the baskets of knowledge.

Tāne ascended through the twelve realms of heaven but on his way up was attacked by the Multitude of Peketua, an army of reptiles and insects sent by Whiro. Whiro was eventually defeated, and Tāne welcomed the Multitude into his forest domain. One of those creatures was the ancestors of the wētā you see today.

Wētā need your help

Without sounding too dramatic, it has to be said that many of our precious wētā are in a critical situation and could do with a helping hand. Some wētā more than others. The largest, what we call wētāpunga, is also our most critically endangered, and today survives only on offshore, predator-free islands. Many other types of giant wētā and tusked wētā are also struggling

Introduced predators such as hedgehogs, mustelids (like stoats), rats, and cats have all played havoc with our wētā populations. Humans have too, because we keep changing the land so much.

Make wētā hotels

Although wētā like to live in holes, they usually rely on the hole-making ability of other insects such as the puriri moth. If there aren’t any holes, they make do under stones or beneath old logs. All you need to do is create a safe space for wētā (or other insects) to rest away from the prying eyes of predators.

For some great wētā hotel building tips, check out this blog by the Department of Conservation. In short, they love old pine and willow but they aren’t a fan of rot!

Intrigued?

If you are interested in learning more about New Zealand wētā, then a visit to our new attraction, Te Wāhi Wētā, is a must-do. Located within the Pūkaha reserve, here you can see examples of wētā hotels, spot wētā in specially-built terrariums and marvel at the Giant Wētā, a 50:1 scale sculpture built by the Auckland Burners. To find out more about what you can see, take a look here.

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