wētāpunga / Little Barrier Island giant wētā
The Environmental Issue: Introduction of Invasive Species.
Although wētāpunga were originally distributed across the Northland, Auckland, and Great Barrier Island regions of New Zealand, the species only survived on Little Barrier Island. The introduction of kiore (Pacific/Polynesian rat) and ship rats that came with European settlement to New Zealand as well as habitat degradation and fragmentation on the New Zealand mainlands extirpated the species from the Northland and Auckland regions. The rats preyed upon juveniles of numerous wētā species, sending wētāpunga and 15 other species into risk of extinction. It has been noted that as early as the 1950s, wētāpunga were still abundant on Little Barrier Island, but even the population on this island experiences great declines since then. Additionally, It is believed that feral cats introduced to the island used to feed on the wētāpunga too, until they were eradicated in the 1980s.
Giant wētā as a whole group have become a conservation icon for New Zealand in recent years as most of its species only persist on protected land in which the dense forests they rely on for habitat and food exist. Conservation organizations like the Wētā Recovery Group have been partnering with other organizations like Butterfly Creek in Auckland to breed and translocate wētāpunga species to historic home ranges. One of their biggest success stories was back in 2007 when the rare Cook Strait giant wētā was reintroduced at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington on the mainland after being extirpated from the mainland for over a century! About 10 years ago, in 2008, the New Zealand Government’s Department of Conservation also got on broad with the reintroduction projects. Because of these organizations’ efforts, wētāpunga has been successfully reintroduced to the islands of Tiritiri Matangi and Motuora. Looking to the future, the Weta Recovery Group plans to establish several populations on invasive-free islands around the Hauraki Gulf.
Additionally, the Department of Conservation in New Zealand is advocating for invasive species checks when venturing around the islands. They encourage people to check for pests, whether that be rats, mice, or invasive plants. Any number of organisms could be hitching a ride on or in your backpack or in the mud on the bottom of your shoes. The introduction of the invasive rats likely happened as accident. Explorers weren’t intending for rats to be introduced, but they hitched a ride and because people likely didn’t go out of their way to stop it, they established. However, you can help stop the advancement of invasive species by taking necessary steps to check what you are traveling with and brushing off your shoes and gear.
If you would like to check out more animals on the Endangered Species List on your own, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of Threaten/Endangered Species in the U.S. and Foreign Countries.
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