One damn BIG cricket
Also known as the giant weta, this insectthough smaller than the aptly named Goliath beetle among others (refer to the footnote)is the heaviest insect on record. Weta are related to crickets and grasshoppers and can be found on the southern continents (South America, South Africa, Austalia-New Zealand). Backing up a moment, not all giant weta are equal (but some are more equal than others). In fact, though relatively large, not all are in the Them! category of big, big, big insects. Some are only "big" compared to other weta. Which is why this isn't just titled "giant weta." This is about the big ones.
There are some 100 species of weta endemic to New Zealand, 11 of which are "giant." The biggest of the big is Deinacrida heteracantha. Besides being known as the giant weta, it is known by the more interesting and colorful Maori name "wetapunga" (from whence the "weta" came), a name that means "god of ugly things." The fearsome motif carried over into the scientific name, as well: Deinacrida means "demon grasshopper."
Taxonomic stuff (for people who actually care about such things)
A member of the order Orthoptera, the weta do not quite live up to the classification in the literal sense because they do not have wingsorthoptera meaning "straight-winged" (which is not to suggest they are alone in their wingless state). Given the weight of the insect, wings would be fairly useless and evolution likely lost them along the way. In fact, the weight of the insect keeps it from jumping like other orthopterans (which are also aided in extending their leap with their wingsweta lose either way) . They do resemble (in both senses) other members of the Loyal Order of Orthoptera, though. Other members tend to be larger than other insects, have long rear legs (they can jump), and are usually herbivorous (sort of a vegetarian demon).
They do look like their cricket and grasshopper brethrenfrom hell. They have the long, "backward" bent legs and the longish abdomen. They also have the armor plate-like pieces of exoskeleton covering their dorsal side ("notal plates" to the more scientifically minded). Weta have antennae that can be twice as long as their bodies. Because of their size, the exoskeleton is necessarily thick (it also functions to retain moisture), protecting it. At the same time, when the weta molts its exoskeleton in order to grow, it is replaced by a new one that starts out soft and hardens over time. During this period, they are far more vulnerable to predation than usual.
Wanna eat a bug? Please don't eat the bug.
Weta have no real predators in the insect world. Danger comes from animals higher on the food chain. It is likely for that reason, that the weta have no real defense mechanisms to compensate, their large size being enough of a deterrent, especially on the islands of New Zealand where there was a distinct lack of larger predatory animals. That same reasonpredatory and evolutionary isolationallowed for a number of creatures to grow to sizes not found in other parts of the world (the extinct moa for example). And the weta certainly had time to develop their sizetheir history goes back some 190 million years and there seems to have been little change since they bid farewell to the dinosaurs (it's thought New Zealand broke away from the supercontinent Gondwana/Gondwanaland between 70 and 90 million years ago). When cornered, the insect rears its cruel-looking back legs, covered with sharp spines. This is less effective than it might be thought, even after seeing the god's spines. They can also use their strong jaws to bite, though it is rare. Humans have little to fear from this creature. At least physically.
And not all use this method. One weta plays possum, many of the tree-dwelling species use their large mandibles (tree-dwelling weta have larger mandibles than other species) to dig under the bark and then cross the spiny legs over the hole to keep out the predator. In fact, living in trees also protects the insect from some predators (though not all). For instance, some (like our not-so-little friend wetapunga) will live in gorse, a shrub (Mediterranean in origin, it is considered a nuisance because it spreads quickly and outcompetes native plants), whose spiny foliage discourages predators (and others) from entering.
Hunting the wild wetapunga or "Where's Weta?"
Wetapunga are arboreal (that is: they live on trees). They can be found under loose bark (particularly during the day as they are nocturnal) on leaves of some trees, in dead leaves under tree ferns, or near other epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants: orchids, ferns, lichens, mosses, and others). According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the way to detect their presence is to
Look for faecal pellets. These are most commonly found at the base of old convoluted tree trunks, inside refuge crevices in tree trunks, and in areas directly below epiphytes on overhanging branches.
Which came first...?
Like a typical insect, the weta begins as an egg, one of 100 to 300 laid by the female, that hatches one to four months after being deposited. Instead of going through metamorphic stages (larva, pupa), the young are born in roughly the same shape as the adult. These "nymphs" take about 18 months to mature to adulthood. Adults live an additional six months to two years beyond that (males and females share "territory" for about six months before they mate and the eggs are laid in warm, moist soil). Diet consists almost entirely of vegetable matter, though some eat dead insects as well. Yum. crunchy.
Hunting the wild wetapunga againwho are these hunters?
The wetapunga were once found in Auckland, Great barrier Island, and Little Barrier Island. Historical records show have them inhabiting other islands around New Zealand. At present they are only found on Little Barrier Island. The population has been in decline since, at least, the 1950s and by all indications it continues to the present.
And what beasts have been wearing away the population of these insects sometimes referred to as "devils of the night"? Two, in particular, have been significant in the depletion of numbers. Both are late additions to the islands: cats and rats. Cats have been quite dangerous to the insects and the kiore (Maori name: the Polynesian or Pacific rat), while smaller and not as "efficient" (www.bigjude.com) as their European cousins, the kiore have probably been responsible for the deaths of thousands of weta (the efficiency of the cat killing machine is well-documented). Mountain-dwelling weta are safe from the kiore. An interesting thing is that the isolation of the islands has allowed the insect to fill the evolutionary niche that small mammals like rats and mice would normally fill ("normally" as in "elsewhere").
There are also native-born predators like owls, saddledbacks (a bird), kiwis (the bird, not the fruit or the people), parrots, and the tuatara, a lizard with a history almost as long as the weta. Though the insect has managed to survive millions of years with the birds and the lizards, the introduction of both rats and cats (along with human encroachment and destruction of habitat) has been enough to throw off the balance, making some weta endangered. Other introduced mammals such as ferrets, hedgehogs, and stoats, also carry predatory danger, though on a smaller scale.
Saving Private Weta
New Zealand, over the last part of the twentieth century, has made an effort to conserve many of its endangered speciesof which five of the eleven giant weta species (including the wetapunga) are on the list. In all, 16 species of New Zealand weta are at risk. Efforts taken to preserve the wetapunga's population on Little Barrier Island have been ongoing. During the 1970s, cats were removed from the island. This, unsurprisingly, led to an increase in the kiore population. In 1994, they ceased using insecticides around the rangers house. Close monitoring of the population continues. Possible transfer of populations is an option if conditions become dire.
Weta do have some things going for them. They are able to survive in relatively small areas, making the "human encroachment" risk less than it is for some endangered species. They are also highly adaptable, able to live in modified habitats and have no trouble surviving and even breeding under laboratory conditions. In fact, they have been frozen in ice and thawed out with no apparent damage to them. Evil!
Does size really matter? What about weight?
And what about the size? That's part of the draw here, right? Here's the deal. The average length of the brownish beast is about 82mm long (just under 3 inches), though specimens slightly larger have been found. (110mm4 and one-third incheswith ovipositor.) This may sound smallwhat's three inches?but this isn't a mammal or a bird or a fish, this is an insect. That's about the size of your hand (disclaimer: the size of your hand may vary from the author's). And the remarkable thing about the wetapunga is not so much the length but the weight.
Average weight (male): 18g (just over .6 ounces)
Average weight (female, with eggs): 43g (about 1.5 ounces)
Still sounds a bit small. But considering that egg-laden female, that's almost twice as much as a deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus)the insect only about half the length of the rodent (including tail). Over twice the weight of a house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus Carpodacus mexicanus) and about the same as four house wrens (Troglodytes aedon Troglodytes aedon Troglodytes aedon Troglodytes aedon). Imagine that on your hand. Now imagine it as a big, spiny-legged insect. Mostly harmless or not, it's quite a creature.
But that's not the record-breaking weight. The record was a female in captivity that had gone a while without laying her eggs. This fearsome female clocked in at 71g (2.5 ounces). That's in line with the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalusalso known by his first name: Woody), a bird that is about three times the length of the insect. Now put that on your hand in the guise of a huge cricket. Though it's likely that it isn't quite number one in average weight,1 the recipients of world records are often "freaks."
Even if one discounts this extreme measurement, the wetapunga is still "one damn big cricket."
1Because of the detail and dryness of this, it's being footnoted. According to the University of Florida's Insect Book of World Records (http://ufbir.ifas.ufl.edu; this is a cool site), there are five beetles that could be heavier (they are bigger). The chapter is about the "largest" insect so weight is only one consideration. So, the giants of the insect world?
There is an 1874 reference to a "nine-inch" Titanus (which is not a prop from a porn flick) but no specimen was preserved. There is some speculation that the researcher may have measured a large one with the antennae stretched out but it just isn't certain. Another problem is that there isn't a lot of objective data concerning weight and size in some of the beetles. In the case of length, problems arise from the way legs might be stretched out, antennae, angle of the mandiblesin some cases, they are broken off, further complicating thingsand "horns." For weight, there is known to be variation depending on feeding habits and the timing of the measurement. But granted the conditions of the weta female in question, it is clear that she is the Queen Obese Insect world record holder in maximum weight for an insect.
- Goliathus goliatus ("Equatorial Africa, central and east"): 11 cm (4.3 inches)
- Goliathus regius (West Africa): 11 cm (4.3 inches)
- Megasoma actaeon (South America:) 13.5 cm (5.3 inches)
- Megasoma elephas (Central and South America): 13.7 cm (5.4 inches)
- Titanus giganteus (South America): 16.7 cm (6.6 inches)
- Christchurch City Libraries:
- "The Demon Grasshopper and other Wetas": www.bigjude.com/Weta.html
- Kiwi Conservation Club:
"Giant Weta" www.kcc.org.nz/animals/weta/giantweta.htm
"The Weta" www.kcc.org.nz/animals/weta.htm
- New Zealand Department of Conservation:
- "New Zealand Ecology: Gigantism in Insects": www.terranature.org/gigantism.htm
- "The New Zealand Weta": weta.boarsnest.net
- numerous other sites were used to factcheck and look up animal weights. Of particular help was The Animal Diversity Web at animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/index.html
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