The first time I saw a Giant Weta was in the pages of a children’s science magazine in elementary school. In the photo, someone was holding what I at first believed was a massive cricket in one hand while feeding it a regular-sized carrot with the other. Of course, I immediately wanted one as a pet.
While Giant Weta do love carrots (as well as fruits and smaller insects), my dreams of owning a Giant Weta will never come to pass: these colossal critters only live in New Zealand. The Giant Weta is also endangered as a result of invasive predators (especially rats and cats) and habitat destruction, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to take one even if I could.
Along with grasshoppers and crickets, the Giant Weta is a member of the order Orthoptera. While not actually the world’s largest insect (that title belong to the giant walking stick), it is the heaviest, weighing in at up to 2.5 ounces. Its weight renders the Giant Weta flightless and unable to jump, which used to not be a problem before predatory mammals were brought to the islands where it lives. Nowadays, that is definitely an issue.
While rats and Weta fill similar ecological roles, birds and reptiles like kiwi and tuatara depend on Weta as an important food source. Fortunately, groups like the New Zealand Department of Conservation are working hard to restore the populations of many Weta species. One ongoing project involves relocating Tusked Weta to islands devoid of invasive predators. Weta are also being bred in captivity, where they can be studied for conservation purposes and later released to boost population numbers in their native habitats.
Although their genus name (Deinacrida) means “fierce grasshopper,” Giant Weta are rather mellow compared to other Weta species. It is very rare to be bitten by a Giant Weta: although their mandibles are strong enough to crunch carrots, they are much more likely to run away than draw blood if threatened. In fact, handfeeding carrots to Giant Weta is pretty common in New Zealand.
Maybe I’ll have to make my way around to New Zealand after all. Even if I can’t bring one home with me, handfeeding a cricket the size of a hamster sounds like an extraordinary experience.