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The New Zealand Tuatara - A Living Fossil

Updated on June 15, 2012

Portrait of a living tuatara

A gorgeous tuatara sitting very still.
A gorgeous tuatara sitting very still. | Source

The photographs in this article are all by me, taken at Auckland Zoo. You can learn more about Auckland Zoo's native New Zealand animals in The Wao Nui (the native species exhibit).

What is the Tuatara?

The tuatara is a fairly large reptile endemic to New Zealand, that looks a bit like an Eastern Water Dragon. It is probably the largest native carnivore (now that Haast's giant eagle is extinct). It is, like most New Zealand species, very unique - iin fact, it's practically a living dinosaur! The largest New Zealand reptile is not a lizard - the order Sphenodontia split off around the time of the dinosaurs.

It's often called a 'living fossil' (like the Coelecanth), although this isn't strictly true, as it is not the same creature it was 200 million years ago. Their closest relative died out 60 million years ago!

It's a very unique species - it has no visible ears (but can hear sounds!), and has a third eye on its forehead that is able to detect light. Many of the features in its skeleton are retained from fish - and it has a completely unique double row of teeth in its top jaw.

They're all endangered and only live on various offshore islands, away from rats and other invasive pests (specifically Stephens Island, the Mercury Islands group, Hen and Chicken Islands and Poor Knights Islands). The tuatara on various islands have evolved into different species, and New Zealand currently has three known varieties: Stanley Island tuataras, Curvier tuataras and Stephen's Island tuataras.

Unique Biology! But Why?

Interesting Facts About The Tuatara

  • It can hold its breath for an hour
  • It has a third eye.
  • It has an extra row of teeth in its top jaw
  • It has no ears

Local Maori Mythology About Tuataras.

Tuatara is the Maori name and means "spiny back" or '"peaks on the back" after the row of spikes down the male's spine. They have a fairly prominent place in Maori myths and legends.

They are considered messengers of the god Whio (pronounced Feeoh). Whio is the god of death and disaster, and the guardians of the kete (woven flax basket) of knowledge. Today they are taonga (sacred).

How Is The Tuatara Related To Other Reptiles?

If you're interested in the taxonomic background of the tuatara, then you might be interested to know that it makes up an order of reptiles, all on its own!

Currently, there are four living orders in Class Reptilia

  • Crocodilia (crocodiles, gavials, caimans, and alligators): 23 species
  • Order:¬†Rhynchocephalia or¬†Sphenodontia (tuataras from New Zealand): 2 species
  • Squamata (lizards, snakes, and worm lizards): approximately 7,900 species
  • Testudines (turtles and tortoises): approximately 300 species

Northern Tuatara

Sphenodon punctatus pretending to be a leaf,.
Sphenodon punctatus pretending to be a leaf,. | Source

Tuatara Behaviour and Appearance

Tuatara tend to nest in burrows - sharing quite happily with seabirds. Not sure how the seabirds feel about it, as the tuatara goes hunting for eggs and chicks, along with insects and small lizards during warmer nights!

They are usually nocturnal, and don't like to get very warm, but like most cold-blooded creatures, bask in the sun to take the chill off, and are more active in warmer weather (as far as they can tolerate).

The colour of tuataras ranges from grey to green to brown - and can change over time. They're slow growers, and reach their full size at about 35 years old. They reach about eighty centimetres (31 inches).

Breeding and Lifespan: From Babies to Great-Great-Grandparents

It can live up to a hundred years! Unfortunately, this means that the tuatara breed very slowly, finding a mate only every 3-5 years.The female is then pregnant, or eggbound, for about nine months, and then the eggs can take over a year to hatch!.

Like many reptiles, the sex of babies is determined by the temperature the eggs are incubated at. Warm weather makes for male babies, which means that the tutatara population is going to have a lot of bachelors when climate change kicks off. This means that aver a century or two, the tuatara will stop being able to breed (functionally extinct) and then die out.

TUATARA: A Living Fossil

Tuatara: A Living Fossil
Tuatara: A Living Fossil

While it has terrible pictures, 'TUATARA: A Living Fossil' is a comprehensive and fascinating history of the Tuatara in New Zealand, conservation efforts, importance and of course, a great deal of scientific information about the biology and evolution of the tuatara.


How Many Species of Tuatara?

The tuatara on various islands have evolved into different species, and New Zealand currently has three known varieties.

The commonest species is Sphenodon punctatus punctatus - the Northern tuatara - found on all the islands (except for the ones where the other species lives), fossil record shows that it lived all over the mainland of New Zealand during the Holocene. Its disappearance coincides with the arrival of humans.

Sphenodon punctatus - the Cook Strait Tuatara is closely related to the Northern Tuatara.

Sphenodon guntheri is very rare, only found on one island. it is known as the Brothers Island tuatara, as that is the only place it lived until breeding colonies were established on two other islands as part of conservation projects. There are currently only about 400 individuals.

How Much Does A Tuatara Cost?

You can't buy a tuatara legally - they are classified as rare and are completely protected by New Zealand and International law.

There is a black market for them, as 'living dinosaurs', and the price of a tuatara there is about $10,000 each.

If you are looking for a reptile that looks similar to the tuatara and will make a good pet, then try an Eastern or Bearded Water Dragon.

Tuatara Photo

One of my photographs of Sphenodon punctatus
One of my photographs of Sphenodon punctatus | Source

Tuatara Conservation

There are active programmes to protect the tuatara. Every New Zealand zoo (and other New Zealand wildlife centres) have a nocturnal house, in which you can usually see both kiwi and tuatara and most of these places have breeding programs.

The main problem for tuatara is the Polynesian rat ("Kiore").Luckily, most of the islands are out of reach - although rats have been known to swim very long distances. The islands are actively patrolled and guarded against pests - the Department of Conservation is the best in the world at pest eradication from small islands!

Recently, a fenced off reserve was created in 2005 on the tip of a peninsula to create Karori Sanctuary. While mice can still slip through the fence, almost everything else is kept out, and the very first wild baby tuatara was born in 2009.

More Fun Tuatara Stuff You can Buy

What on Earth Is a Tuatara?
What on Earth Is a Tuatara?

Grade 3-5: a book of facts and photos.


Where Can I See A Tuatara?

You can see a tuatara in pretty much every New Zealand zoo and wildlife sanctuary centre! Overseas, there are 43 tuataras in only six zoos: Chester Zoo (UK); Berlin Zoo (Germany);San Diego Zoo, St. Louis Zoo, Dallas Zoo and one other in the USA.

If you want to see one in the wild, at least two islands allow the public to visit - Moutohora and the Tiritriri Matangi sanctuary.

Tiritriri Matangi is an island about an hour on the ferry from Auckland (the cost of the ferry is the only cost involved, but it's quite high) and is a wonderful place to visit. It only has about sixty tuatara, and while they are seen fairly often, it isn't guaranteed - I've never seen one andI've been there about five times. However, the whole island is a bird sanctuary and is full of bellbirds, tui, black robins, saddlebacks and kereru (wood pigeons). You'll also see little blue penguins along the shore and a family of very friendly takahe around the visitor centre. I even saw a morepork sitting over the cafe once!

Moutohora is in the Bay of Plenty, and is restricted to approved visitors only (including tours and school groups). It has a successful population of tuatara.

The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary has since been renamed Zealandia (undoubtedly in some attempt to attract tourists) and is right on the edge of the city of Wellington. It welcomes visitors and easy to get to. Like Titriti Matangi, you'll see a lot of native birds as well.


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    • annmackiemiller profile image


      6 years ago from Bingley Yorkshire England

      what a fascinating creature - I've never heard of them before.


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