TUATARA

Conservation status: Range restricted (DoC)

  • Tuatara means ‘spiny back’ in Maori.
  • Adult males are about twice as big as females and tuatara are New Zealand’s largest reptiles.  
  • Tuatara have a third eye on top of the brain between the visible other eyes.  Although this eye has no vision, it is light sensitive, and scientists believe it may function as a regulator, influencing the amount of time a tuatara spends basking.
  • Tuatara teeth are different from those of other reptiles. They have a single row of teeth in the lower jaw, and a double row in the upper jaw.  Older tuatara are virtually toothless, mashing their food between smooth jaw bones.
  • The largest population of tuatara is on Stephens Island in the Cook Strait.
  • The sex of tuatara is determined by the soil temperature around the eggs. Warm soil produces males and cool soil, females.
  • Tuatara live for ages…they grow until they are at least 60 and probably live to be over 100.
  • Tuatara are the only living members of an ancient order of reptiles that evolved around 225 million years ago. Tuatara have not changed in over millions of years due to New Zealand’s isolation which may be the reason they still survive.
  • Tuatara don’t eat very often so at the Zoo we feed them twice a week during summer, and once a week over winter.
  • There are three subspecies of tuatara - Northern, Cook Strait and Brothers Island.  They have no close living relatives.
  • In 2007, Wellington Zoo helped to release 55 Brothers Island tuatara (the most rare species) onto an island in Cook Strait. The tuatara were hatched at Victoria University before being raised at the Zoo for five years.