The Giant Weta Hits The Headlines of Science Magazine
The Weta looks like a version of our North American cricket, but with one huge difference; it’s the size of a large mouse. That may sound a bit alarming, but the Weta play huge roles in the local ecosystem, and with out them many problems arise.
After the dinosaurs went extinct, rodents and other mammals began exploding in population due to the lack of predators, filling the niche of decomposers and carnivores. However, New Zealand had split from the massive landmass some 15 billion years prior and only supported one species of mammal, a bat. Therefore the flightless creatures, like the Weta, were able to step up and fill in the decomposer and predator niches. They slowly expanded their ranges, there were arboreal, terrestrial, and subterranean species. The Weta played key ecosystem roles and were even responsible for seed dispersal.
When the first Polynesian ships arrived to colonize the island, they unintentionally brought over rats. The Rats quickly established and became predators of the Weta, drastically reducing their population and essentially replacing them on the food chain.
They were thought to be extinct until 1962, a handful were found hiding in a thorny plant species. Since then researchers and conservationists have dedicated their lives to protecting and learning more about the Weta. In the 1990’s a preserve was fenced off and designated a sanctuary for the Weta. Individuals were also moved to isolated islands in hope of a population resurgence but alas still in the proximity of swimming mammals. Now, the sanctuary is fenced in and mammal proof but researchers are exploring new technologies to keep the Weta from crawling out.
Conservation and preservation for insects is a challenge because they do not offer the ‘cuteness’ factor that mammals do. Therefore finding the funding is rarely easy. Educational outreach programs help spread the word and ‘humanize’ insects and increase the public support of them.
For more information about the Weta and the conservation programs involved with them visit http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/saving-god-ugly-things-new-zealand-battles-bring-back-its-rodent-sized-insects