Takahe, Kiwi
Kakapo, Penguin
Teal, Moa, Wren
Parrots & Parakeets

Kea, Kakapo
Kaka, and
5 parakeets

Huia Wattlebirds

Gigantism in insects
Giant worms
Big trees

First tuatara nest found in 200 years
"The first confirmed tuatara nest in over 200 years on mainland New Zealand has been discovered at the Karori Sanctuary in Wellington..."
1 November 2008
New Zealand Herald

Tuatara to get new lease on life as rats wiped out
"Tuatara are expected to thrive on Little Barrier Island again, with the announcement that the Pacific rat kiore is to be eradicated ..."
26 January 2004
New Zealand Herald

Tuatara take first steps to comeback
"The first tuatara eggs have been laid on Tiritiri Matangi Island after 60 of the ancient reptiles were moved there"
29 December 2003
New Zealand Herald

New Zealand reptile in climate peril
"Just one degree rise in temperature could spell the end for a "living fossil"
27 March 2002

Tuatara at home on island
"After an absence of 60 years tuatara are thriving on Moutohora ..."
21 February 2002
New Zealand Herald

Island tuatara bounce back
"The breeding rate of tuatara on the Marotiri Islands near Whangarei has delighted and surprised scientists"
14 February 2002
New Zealand Herald


The tuatara is the world's sole remaining beak-headed reptile of the Rhynchocephalia Order. This group became extinct in all other places on Earth, but the tuatara has survived in New Zealand for 200 million years. The tuatara is one of the most unevolved and oldest animals living in the world today.

The tuatara resembles an ordinary lizard in appearance, but it is so radically different, it is classified in its own order, as well as its own family.  It is characterised by a second bony bridge in its skull which is also found in crocodilians, but is lost in lizards and snakes.

As with Leiopelma frogs (left), tuatara evolved in the ancient Triassic world of Gondwana, and survived the Cretaceous period when the dinosaurs died out. They have both been isolated on New Zealand islands for 80 million years.
See Leiopelma frogs

The absence of a pairing organ, and an immovable fixing of the quadrate bone to the skull, also differentiate tuatara from lizards.  These primitive features extend back to prehistoric "stem reptiles" of the Permian and Triassic period, from which all reptiles are believed to have descended.

An unusual feature is a third pineal eye which has a retina and a rudimentary lens, and is connected to the brain by a nerve.  It is apparent in infants, but is covered by opaque scales in adults, so it is unknown whether the eye serves any function.

Females only mate every four years, but males wish to mate every year, which causes frustration, and considerable fighting amongst the males for partners.  Eggs take four years to develop in the female, which is longer than any reptile.  As many as 19 eggs are laid in a shallow depression in the ground outside the burrow, and take a full year to hatch.  The gender of the hatchling is determined by the temperature of the ground.  Tuatara live for 60 to 100 years.

Return to living fossils - native frogs & snails

Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus

A really cool character ...

Tuatara reach a peak of activity when their body temperature is 12 to 17 degrees centigrade, the lowest warmth requirement of any reptile.  This is possibly the reason they have been able to survive for so long in New Zealand's temperate climate. Other reptiles are active when their body temperature is 25 to 38 degrees centigrade.

Other remarkable traits of tuatara are that they take a breath of air just once every hour, and do not drink water.  Tuatara are primarily nocturnal, but like to spend part of the day basking in the sun outside their burrow.

They come out at night to feed on insects such as wetas, worms, snails, and just about anything else.  Dinner sometimes even includes its own young.  Home is below ground in burrows forming a labyrinth of tunnels, that are sometimes shared with shearwaters and petrels. In the spring tuatara will occasionally dine on the seabird eggs or chicks.

International Threatened & Endangered Listings
2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Sphenodon guntheri

United States Threatened and Endangered Species, Foreign Listed Species
Sphenodon punctatus
Brothers Island Tuatara Sphenodon guntheri  Endangered

Tuatara  Sphenodon punctatus

Tuatara were once commonly found on both of New Zealand's mainland islands, but are now only on offshore islands.

Sphenodon punctatus which is more common, has brown and white skin. It is on northern islands in the Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel Coast, with a subspecies on islands in the Cook Strait.

Tuatara can be seen sunbathing next to trails on Tiritiri Matangi Island, since 60 were moved to the reserve from the Mercury Islands in 2003.  An egg nest was found in December 2003, so the first hatchlings on the island may appear in early 2005.

Brothers Island tuatara  Sphenodon guntheri

Sphenodon guntheri is endemic to Brothers Island, and is colored differently with olive skin with white spots.  There are presently only 400 of this species remaining.

Photo and illustration credit
Left top: Takahe
Left fourth from top: Tusked weta
Middle: Archey's frog, Crown Copyright, Department of Conservation
Right top: Tuatara, male, Poor Knights Island, Rod Morris 1985, Crown Copyright, Department of Conservation
Left third from top: John Gerrard Keulemans 1842-1912, Huia (male and female) Heteralocha acutirostris.
Left fifth from top: Kauri
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa must be obtained before any re-use of these images.

Copyright © 2004 TerraNature Trust. All rights reserved.

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