If your holidays are taking you to Northland, the Coromandel or the East Cape you could come face-to-face with large, carnivorous tusked weta.
Unlike their primarily vegetarian weta kin, the tusked variety are carnivores – but fortunately their appetite only extends to worms and other insects so roaming North Island travellers needn’t fear being eaten.
For those staying in Auckland this summer, you can spot two of the rarest tusked weta without burrowing through leaves or fossicking in the bush. Auckland Museum’s Te Ao Turoa (our Maori Natural History Gallery) is home to two Mercury Island Tusked Weta (Motuweta isolata).
The weta are part of the museum’s “Weird & Wonderful” trails and tours, running over the next five weeks, which aim to highlight some of the less prominent treasures on display in the galleries.
Mercury Island Tusked Weta were discovered just over 30 years ago, on a tiny island in the Mercury group, gaining the title of the country’s rarest weta. Population numbers have been boosted dramatically by a Department of Conservation breeding programme which you can learn more about here and see these incredible insects in action.
The distinctive tusks on the jaw which give the weta their name are actually only found on the males and are used in fights with other males, to push, shove and ultimately try to flip their opponent.
When they’re not being used for violence, the tusks can be turned toward a bit of vocal posturing. A series of ridges near the tip of the tusks are rubbed together to make a shrill, rasping sound.
This pair was bred in captivity and their offspring were liberated on another Mercury Island to help ensure the species’ survival. Due to the tusked weta’s rarity there are very few reference specimens in insect collections and this pair represents two of the three specimens currently on public display.