The weta

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The weta

The makers of King Kong knew it all along, and so does our Anonymous Animal expert Jelle Hoogenboom now, if you’re looking for enormous creatures, you need to visit an island. Want to see a big lizard? On the Indonesian island of Komodo lives one so large, that we call it a dragon. Tired of tiny tortoises? The Galapagos has giants. But Jelle's favourite example of an island giant lives on New Zealand...

As every Australian would tell you, New Zealand is the country of excentrics. Remember the kakapo? The archipelago is also the home of a huge flightless cricket called the weta. The largest species, the wetapunga, can weigh 70 grams, as much as three mice. Small in comparison to a giant gorilla, but still the heaviest insect known to man.

What causes this island gigantism? Islands are generally difficult to reach, especially if you can’t fly or swim. The more isolated an island is, the less animals will be able to arrive there. This also goes for New Zealand. When the maori settled on the archipelago, the only other mammals were bats, seals and sealions. No kangaroo or platypus had been able to cross the ditch.

For the weta, this means cricket paradise. No mammals means far less predators, but it has another benefit. Niches that normally would have been filled by shrews and mice, were still vacant. That means plenty of food. With no constraints from predation or food competition, the weta grew larger and larger.

The kiwis are proud of their big bugs. Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films, even named his special effects studio after them. It seems only logical that when Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, he gave a big part to his compatriots. Don’t let the film scare you off. Just like gorillas, wetapungas are gentle vegetarians.

Illustration: Sandra Morris