Wetas, cave wetas, and lagniappe (cat versus weta)

Some of the most unusual endemic insects in New Zealand are the wētā, orthopterans. They’re often referred to as “crickets,” but they’re in the families  Anostostomatidae and Rhaphidophoridae and not the cricket family (Gryllidae). Although Wikipedia says that there are 70 species of wētā (all endemic to this country), there are doubtlessly a lot more, as another guide I have lists several unnamed species.

Besides all New Zealand species of wētā being flightless, they are famed for their fierceness and size. The world’s heaviest insect is the Little Barrier Island Giant Weta (Deinacrida heteracantha), weighing in at a ponderous 9-35 grams (0.3-1.3 oz), but can weigh as much as 70 grams (2.5 ounces), which means that only about 6 of the biggies would weigh a pound. Here are two pictures of that species (not my photos):

These now live on the island as they were destroyed by introduced mammalian predators. The early Maori also liked to eat them. (See here for additional facts.)

Another strange species is the Mountain Stone Wētā (Hemideina maori). A denizen of high altitudes on the South Island, it can survive being frozen solid for months. Wikipedia says this (see also here and here):

Mountain stone weta can survive being frozen for months in a state of suspended animation down to temperatures of about -10 °C. At temperatures below -10 °C approximately 85% of their body water is crystallised, which is one of the highest ice contents known for any animal. During winter their haemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) contains low molecular weight  cryoprotectants such as amino acids especially proline (up to about 100 mM) and the disaccharide trehalose. These substances are synthesized during autumn and their concentration decreases again during spring and summer (Proline concentration decreases to about 10 mM during summer). The amino acids and sugars presumably help to decrease the ice content colligatively. However, they probably also have a direct protective effect on membranes and proteins via direct interaction or by modifying the water layer with the closest proximity to the molecules. It also displays the defensive behaviour of “playing dead”, by lying still for a short time on its back with legs splayed and claws exposed and jaws wide open ready to scratch and bite, this behavior is often accompanied with regurgitation.

Here’s a Mountain Stone Wētā (not my photo):

Finally, Tree Wētā of several species (genus Hemideina) are common, and they’re fearsome, as males have huge heads and can inflict a nasty bite (they’re found in dead wood, and can live in firewood piles around houses). This video shows a cat encountering what I think is a tree wētā. Look at that head and those pincers! The sexual dimorphism probably indicates that the males fight each other for females.

Two days ago Geoffrey, my host, took me on a hike above Lake Okatina to look for cave wētā. There are several species, all of course living in caves, and all with huge antennae and long, spindly legs. The species we were looking for is almost certainly the Oparara Cave Wētā (Gymnoplecton spp.)  Geoffrey had spotted them before in these shallow caves that the Maori dug in hillsides that, when first used, were on nearly vertical slopes that have now eroded into hills.

It’s not clear why the Maori dug these caves: it could be to store the bones of their ancestors, their food, or even to hide out (they can hold one or two people). What is clear is that they’re inhabited by hordes of cave wētā, which can bite. When you crawl into one of these caves with a flashlight, you have to make sure you don’t brush the opening or the top, or you could get bitten. It’s a bit anxiety-inducing!

Once inside, when you shine the flashlight on the ceiling, you find it covered with cave wētā, which, with their long legs and longer antennae, look like spiders. I’m not generally a timid person, but I was fearful they’d all come raining down on me!

These photos were taken by using a flashlight to focus the camera, and then, turning off the flashlight, shooting blindly at the ceiling. I think they turned out well, all things considering:

I inverted this photo so you could see its features. They normally hang upside down on the ceiling. Note the reduced eyes, common in cave animals.

Because the Maori complained that Europeans raided caves to steal the treasures interred with their ancestors, the New Zealand government built this concrete bunker atop the hill to house the remains, complete with a lockable steel door. But of course that got broken into as well, and now Maori bury their dead in special cemeteries. Geoffrey said that there were rumors that this bunker, once emptied, was inhabited by a European hermit for two decades. It’s a horrible place to live as it’s cold, dank, and dark, and I’m not sure that story is true!

h/t: Nicole Reggia

40 Comments

  1. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I *knew* I shouldn’t have read this last thing at night. I’m gonna have nightmares tonight…

    cr

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Ha ha, I was thinking of you the whole time I was reading this!

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:20 am | Permalink

      There is no way I could crawl into that cave. I’m shuddering just thinking about it. Yeugh!

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    ‘Surprise’ discovery of Europe’s first cave-dwelling fish

  3. kategladstone
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Re:
    “These now live on the island as they were destroyed by introduced mammalian predators.”

    They were destroyed … and they now live? Wetas can rise from the dead?!

  4. kieran
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Currently checking hair for giant insects….thanks

  5. rickflick
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    What beasts! With just a bit of imagination I can see a terrific horror film based on these crickets. A mad scientist inside a mountain cave-lab in New Zealand accidentally releases mega rads of awesome radiation. The creatures of the cave become enlarged 20 times normal size and…

    • Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Weta-bix! yum…

      • Draken
        Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        You beat me to it, I was just having some misgivings about the contents of Weetabix.

        Are Wetas crunchy?

      • rickflick
        Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        If you meant Weta-bix Chocolate Spoonsize I’d enthusiastically concur.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I was scared of happening upon one in the woods.

      • busterggi
        Posted April 4, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:27 am | Permalink

          If you’re going to post a two hour movie, at least give us a hint of where to look!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

        If it helps, they usually hide in holes in trees or under bark, so – unless you mess with the surroundings – you’re usually fairly safe.

        I expect I’ve got a few in my garden right now, but I’m not going to pull bits of bark off old logs to look.

        cr

  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Very cool, and a certain amount of creepy only adds to the coolness. What an adventure you are having!

  7. busterggi
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Damn the Zanti for sending their prisoners here!

  8. busterggi
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Damn the Zanti for sending their prisoners here!

  9. Draken
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    You know, that weta in the video gives absolutely no fucks attacking that cat. It could easily slip away if it wanted to, but no. Perhaps it’s defending a nest?

    Imagine a whole nest of those crawlies under your windowsill!

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      Shut up! I’m already freaked out enough.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 5, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        To me, it looked like the weta was swearing & making obscene gestures, then grumbling after as he tidied himself up from the encounter.

  10. Marlene Zuk
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! These are fabulous. Now, if you can just find some weta merchandise for me I will happily reimburse you. I have a few weta models/sculptures including a nice copper one, but searched in vain for tea towels, coffee mugs, etc. I did have a t-shirt a while back but it wore out.

    People, why are you afraid of them? They are so beautiful!

    Oh, and it’s Gryllidae, not Grillidae.

    • MKray
      Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Yes!
      I grew up seeing them often. Just why do people find them scary??

    • Posted April 4, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Whoops, a typo. Will fix. I’ll look for Weta items!

  11. darrelle
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I think the weta was mad because the cat kept interrupting its pilates routine.

  12. barn owl
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I dunno, I think the wetas are preferable to the bark scorpions we have around here. I’d much rather have a weta drop out of an A/C vent, or be flung across the room when a ceiling fan is switched on, than a scorpion. Scorpions are sneaky buggers that hide in your shoe, or pants leg, or bedspread – at least the weta is in your face and all “bring it on.”

    I think a radio-controlled weta – complete with waving antennae – would make an awesome cat toy. Think of the hours of fun for a house cat to fish one out from between the sofa cushions, or from under a closet door, only to be confronted by moving mandibles and extended yoga pose legs.

    • Draken
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I could have hours of fun with a radio-controlled weta even without a cat… muhahaha!

      • rickflick
        Posted April 5, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Have Geoffrey from the other thread make you one. 🙂

  13. BilBy
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Anostostomatids are also found in Australia, South America, Madagascar and southern Africa. None are as spectacular as the weta though – with the possible exception of the African ones, which includes the ‘Parktown Prawn’ Libanasidus vittatus. The males have tusks on their jaws and the species is ‘famous’ in S.Africa for pitching up in gardens and kitchens and generally being unwelcome (not to me, I think they’re great). They are pretty iconic now, e.g. the S.African band Die Antwoord often includes parkies in their imagery. I need to go see some NZ weta…

  14. Hempenstein
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Cool! Another special use for proline!

  15. Hempenstein
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Also, maybe the Maoris dug the caves as a handy source of wētās?

  16. Ken
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    A few months after my arrival in Aotearoa and before I even knew there were such things, I slowly awoke in the middle of a warm summer night to the feeling of something crawling up my leg. When fully conscious to the fact that SOMETHING VERY BIG was in fact crawling on me, I literally leaped out of bed and to the light switch. What I saw across the room was the largest insect I’d ever encountered quite so intimately! It was at least as scared as I was. Yes it was a weta and the kiwis at work the next day had a huge laugh at my expense.

    Actually, they are not particularly aggressive and the many encounters I’ve had since have all been good. And btw, I’ve been here nearly 30 yrs and have never heard wetas referred to as crickets!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:04 am | Permalink

      Speaking of vaguely cricket-like things, the cicadas (here in Auckland) seem to be in season. Last night they were buzzing away madly.

      Luckily for me I’ve never had your weta experience. The canonical ‘crawly’ experience must have been the sequence in Dr No

      – though that was a tarantula. I thought the entirely excessive and gratuitous overkill with which Bond dispatched the unfortunate arachnid was psychologically realistic, though it’s unfortunate they didn’t stick with the book and use a centipede. That passage is one of the most spine-tingling toe-curling ones in literature.

      cr

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 5, 2017 at 12:05 am | Permalink

        Oh damn. Sorry PCC. Didn’t mean to imbed.

        😦

        cr

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted April 5, 2017 at 4:32 am | Permalink

        Agree about the centipede. Perhaps reading that in my youth is why I have a problem with creepy-crawlies now.

  17. Mike
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Fascinating creature, but I’m not into Insects I’m afraid. it’s one ugly bug.

  18. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    This post make me learn what Weta Workshop is named for:

    http://wetaworkshop.com/

    ^^^there’s a little weta in their company logo as of this posting.

    and I never knew what Weta meant. I think I’ve seen them, and figured they’re called “giant grasshoppers”.


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