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June 2013 Issue
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Tuatara, photographed at Mount Bruce. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Three places to see these ancient reptiles

New Zealand’s largest reptile, tuatara, have fascinated zoologists ever since Europeans arrived on these shores. Survivors from 220 million years ago, these spiny endemic reptiles are not dinosaurs, but have outlived them. While they haven’t remained unchanged during that time, tuatara do have many primitive features, including bony jaw protuberances instead of proper teeth, a very slow metabolic rate (even by reptilian standards) and no penis in the males. Curiously, tuatara have a ‘third eye’ on top of their head, the function of which remains a mystery. Connected to the pineal gland, this vestigial retina gets covered over by scales as the animals grow into adults, but may remain sensitive to light.

Maori considered reptiles, known as ngarara, to be the offspring of the ugly god Punga. Tuatara, meaning ‘spiny back’, were among these descendants and often thought to bring bad luck. However, perhaps recognizing their ancient lineage, some iwi believe tuatara act as katiaki or guardians of knowledge.

Sadly, vulnerability to rat predation resulted in the once-widespread tuatara disappearing from mainland New Zealand, relegated to off-shore islands or captivity. Stephen’s Island in the Marlborough Sounds boasts the largest remaining population, of about 30,000, but they also occur on more than 35 other islands.

Seabirds such as fairy prions sometimes share tuatara burrows, despite the fact that their eggs and chicks provide an in-house larder for their carnivorous flatmates. They also feed on various invertebrates, frogs and lizards. When tuatara clamp onto prey, or a human finger, they don’t let go quickly. One scientist waited 15 minutes before her bruised fingers were released.

When I studied zoology in the late 1980s, scientists recognised just one tuatara species, Sphendon punctatus, now known as the common tuatara. But since then genetic research has divided the genera into two, which now includes the rare Brothers Island tuatara (Sphenedon guntheri). Only 400 existed on Marlborough’s tiny North Brother Island in the 80s, but some have since been transferred to another island in the Sounds and also to Wellington’s Matiu/Somes Island, where breeding has increased numbers of the rare species.

Even though well adapted to New Zealand’s cool climate – tuatara can maintain activity in temperatures as low as 7ºC – like other reptiles, they enjoy heat. On warm days tuatara raise their body temperature by basking.

Tuatara can live for decades, and sometimes more than a century. One 115-year-old tuatara known as Henry, living in Invercargill’s Southland Museum, bred for the first time aged 111. The Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre holds several captive ones too, and staff run regular ‘tuatara talks’.

For seeing tuatara in the wild, however, check out these three sites.

Tiritiri Matangi Island, Hauraki Gulf, Auckland

Auckland’s most accessible island sanctuary is a wonderful example of community initiative. Locals led by Auckland University scientist John Craig began restoring the island in the 1980s, and now it’s a spectacular haven for a number of rare native birds and reptiles, including tuatara. Regular ferry trips run to the island from Auckland and Whangaparoa.

Zealandia, Wellington

Predator-proof fencing enabled Zealandia staff to reintroduce 70 tuatara to mainland New Zealand in 2005. Since then, the animals have bred well, paving the way for tuatara reintroductions at various other sanctuaries around the country. Zealandia has three tuatara nurseries, with juveniles released into the wider sanctuary once they reach adequate size. Tuatara are most often seen along Lake Road and the Turbine Track, where Zealandia guides will help you spot them.

Matiu/Somes Island, Wellington

Wellington’s largest habour island is an open sanctuary, where visitors can disembark by sea kayak, boat or ferry. To ensure the island’s pest-free status, visitors must check gear for stowaway mice, invertebrates or seeds before setting off to explore. The island has a population of Brothers Island tuatara, introduced in the 1990s. The best place to see them is probably on the western tracks, particularly during sunny days. Look out for burrows either side of the track, and watch for warm spots in the forest where the reptiles like to laze.