The tuatara is often described as New Zealand’s “living fossil”. It comes from a family of reptiles that was present 220 million years ago when the dinosaurs were evolving. It is a lizard like creature with spiny scales and can grow up to 60 cm in length.
It is estimated that there are around 100,000 tuatara. About half of these are found on Stephens Island in Cook Strait. The rest are spread over a variety of islands in the Hauraki Gulf, Coromandel Peninsula and Bay Of Plenty. They can also be found in captivity in such places as the Auckland Zoo, Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre and the Southland Museum, where they have been successfully bred.
The tuatara shares the burrows of burrowing seabirds such as shearwaters and prions. It eats the insects and other small invertebrates, which are attracted by the nutrient rich bird droppings. It has also been known to eat eggs, chicks and even it’s own young. They commonly come out at night to forage and by day will bask in the sun outside their burrows.
Tuatara lay clutches of 5-18 eggs under the ground and then abandon them. They hatch about 12 months later. The sex of baby tuataras depends on soil temperature. Warm temperatures produce predominantly males and cool temperatures females. They are a long lived species. It can take up to 15 years for juveniles to mature and 25-35 years for them to gain full size, with the male being about twice the size of the female. They are thought to live for as long as 100 years.