Last updated 5 February 2010: updated text and added Bibliography.

As ancient as the dinosaurs


Until I became involved in herpetology I had never heard of the tuatara, one of the oldest living vertebrates on earth. Even then I would have probably continued in ignorance of this creature for some time if I had not happened to be discussing reptiles with a New Zealand contractor one day. We were talking about ancient creatures and dinosaurs, and she mentioned a native animal that apparently moved its head once every two days, this being the average total of its activity (something of an exaggeration, I later found out, but not far wrong). Surprisingly, given the recent resurgence of interest in dinosaurs after Jurassic Park, there has been little in print about the tuatara, and yet it is even older than the dinosaurs.

What, then, is the tuatara? Simply put, it is a reptile that looks like a medium-sized lizard but belongs to its own order, the Rhynchocephalia ("beak-heads"), which contains but one family, the Sphenodontidae. The tuatara itself is the only species (properly, Sphenodon punctatus, with a second species designated recently - see below), but there were many more species millions of years ago. This last living representative of the order was itself managing quite well in New Zealand until the arrival first of the Maori about a thousand years ago, and then the white man 100-200 years ago. Both sets of settlers brought their own commensals with them, notably rats (in the case of the Maoris, the Kiore rats). These zoological invaders outbred the tuatara and other native fauna and preyed on the creatures' eggs, until the tuatara was only to be found on a few offshore islands. Happily in the twentieth century the New Zealand government placed the tuatara under strict protection and indeed strove to eliminate non-native fauna (particularly rats) from the reptile's island habitats. Even so, vigilance is constant and the slow reproductive rate of the tuatara makes it unlikely that this fascinating animal will become widespread or even available to most zoos outside of its homeland.

When it was first discovered, the tuatara was in fact classified as a lizard, and at a glance it could be mistaken for an agamid or perhaps an iguanid. Anatomical differences, however, led to its separation into its own order. The most important differences are anatomical, in the way that the vertebrae are joined and the jaws. A more obvious feature, although not visible from the outside, is that the tuatara lacks the male reproductive organ found in all other male reptiles. Instead the male undergoes the ritual of courtship but instead of internally fertilising the female lays a spermatophore, or packet of sperm, for her to lower her cloaca onto. This is reminiscent of amphibian reproduction, especially in newts and salamanders. As with some lizards, the pineal eye is also highly developed. This "third eye" does have a rudimentary lens and retina, but is covered by skin and does not apparently distinguish visible objects. Instead it acts as a sort of light quality sensor, which can tell the progress of the seasons and thus control such behaviours as courtship. One final thing that sets the tuatara apart from the lizards is its extreme longevity, even by reptilian standards. Tuataras do not reach sexual maturity until the age of twenty and will normally live for 80-100 years - a lifespan surpassed only by the tortoises.

In the wild, tuataras are mainly nocturnal. They make their homes in burrows, often those left by indigenous petrels, and venture out at night to prey on various insects and occasionally the eggs of seabirds. Their food consumption is low, however, as their general rate of life, both physically in terms of metabolism and in behaviour, is slow. One other fascinating thing about the tuatara is that it can tolerate temperatures low enough to incapacitate or kill its reptilian relatives - the optimum for a tuatara is in fact about 55 F, an average autumn day in Great Britain. Like the marine iguana, it can slow its heartbeat down, but to an even more extreme degree, about 1-2 beats every few minutes. Interestingly, however, despite this apparent lethargy and a rather docile appearance, it has a strong and tenacious bite.

In 1877 Buller described a second species of tuatara from New Zealand, but for years conventional wisdom held that there was in fact just one species. In 2001 it was confirmed that the animals from North Brother Island in the Cook Strait constituted a different species to the tuataras from further north, and the name S. guntheri proposed by Buller was accepted as valid. It seems that the jury is still out, since a 2009 paper concluded that the apparent differences were only down to local variation (see Wikipedia link for more details).

The tuatara is indeed a living mystery and in many ways is unique among reptiles. Those wishing to see one in real life in the UK should go to Chester Zoo, which has eight living tuataras which they are hoping to breed: apparently two of them have already formed a permanent bond. Berlin Zoo also has tuataras on display, including the one shown above.

Species Common Name Origin Adult size Notes
S. guntheri Brothers Island Tuatara, Günther's Tuatara New Zealand (North Brother Island in the Cook Strait, plus population transfers to several islands off Marlborough and Wellington)  Avg SVL 23-24cm (m), 20-22cm (f) See text above. Coloration: overall dark olive grey to olive-green; numerous pale spots of varying intensity; irregular dull or light blotches or streaks in some individuals; ventrally paler.
S. punctatus Tuatara New Zealand (islands off coast off Northland and in Cook Strait)


SVL approx 20-28cm See text above. The subspecies listed below are apparently not accepted by all authorities (eg Jewell), but are recognised by, inter alia, the JCVI reptile database.
S. p. punctatus
S. p. reischeki


The tuatara, lizards and frogs of New Zealand, Richard Sharell, William Collins, Auckland 1975. Taxonomy now rather outdated, and with fairly general details on a selection of the principal reptiles and amphibians, but still useful, and also has a section on Sphenodon and its place in Maori culture. The 1975 edition contains an addendum on Leiolopisma suteri (now Oligosoma suteri).

New Zealand Reptiles and Amphibians, Joan Robb, William Collins, Auckland 1980.

A Photographic Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of New Zealand, Tony Jewell, New Holland 2008. Handy pocket-sized field guide to the country's herpetology.


Bruce Musico at the University of Michigan gives a good account of the natural history of the tuatara and has a good photograph.

Barbara Blanchard is the Captive Program Co-ordinator of Wellington Zoo for the tuatara. Visit this site for details of their recovery program to assist the tuatara in the wild.

King and Burke's Online Taxonomic and Geographic Reference contains not only the tuatara but also crocodiles and chelonians.

Victoria University of Wellington's tuatara section

Wikipedia article on Sphenodontia, the current classification for the once much larger grouping of these reptiles.

Wikipedia article on Sphenodon, including links to other sources

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