As old as the dinosaurs! 

Tuatara are rare, medium-sized reptiles found only in New Zealand. They are the last survivors of the Rhynchocephalia, an order of reptiles that thrived even before the age of the dinosaurs. The oldest fossils of tuatara are found in rocks of Jurassic age – from 180 million years ago. Fossil evidence indicates that other members of Rhynchocephalia have been extinct for 60 million years.  

3 eyes? 

Tuatara, like lizards, have a ‘third eye’ on the top of the head. The ‘eye’ has a retina, lens, and nerve endings, but it is not used for seeing. It is visible under young tuatara skin but becomes covered with scales and pigment in a few months, making it hard for humans to see it. This parietal eye is sensitive to light and may help the tuatara judge the time of day or season. 

Are they a lizard? 

No! Although they look similar to some lizards, they’re in a reptilian order all of their own. The main visible difference between tuatara and most lizards is the absence of external ear openings (chameleons also lack these but you’d be hard pushed to mistake a tuatara for a chameleon!). The colour of tuatara ranges from olive green to brown to orange-red, and they can even change colour throughout their lifetime. They shed their skin about once per year as an adult, but more frequently when young. 

Is it a boy or a girl? 

Like many other reptiles, the temperature of the nest determines the sex of young tuatara while they develop in the egg. Higher temps = more males. Lower temps = more females. Eggs take up to 16 months to hatch – when it gets too cold, egg development stops until it gets warmer again. Good things take time! 

At the Zoo 

You can find tuatara in The Islands in Te Wao Nui. Take your time and see if you can spot them, tuatara are experts at remaining motionless. When it’s very cold they might take just one breath every hour and they blend in with their surroundings to avoid predators. If you need a hint, they’re often just outside their burrow, keeping an eye (or three) on things. 

Grand designs 

The tuatara habitat is specially designed with some important features: 

  • The roof can be opened when sun is out (important for healthy bones) and then closed when it rains (to avoid flooding the habitat!). 
  • Temperature control - tuatara are unusual reptiles because they like cooler weather. They can remain active with lowest body temperature of any reptile in the world! They tend to avoid temperatures much over 25°C but can survive happily even below 5°C, by sheltering in burrows – often those of seabirds like muttonbirds. At the Zoo we provide a similar climate for them to stimulate natural behaviour. 
  • Deep soil allows tuatara to dig burrows which they guard vigorously, waiting for prey to pass by. The habitat design provides enough room for tuatara to establish individual ownership of one burrow each. 
  • Heat lamps - tuatara are mainly active at night but will come out of their burrows during the day to bask in the sun – or at the Zoo, under the special UV heat lamps.  

Truly unique tuatara

Slow-growing, spiny-backed and truly unique - take a tour with Ectotherm keeper Julie and meet Toa, Tipua, Taki and Flame, just a few of the incredible tuatara that live at Auckland Zoo.

In the wild 

Origin: Tuatara are only found in New Zealand.

Habitat: They once lived throughout the mainland of New Zealand but have survived in the wild only on offshore islands.  

The islands are usually occupied by colonies of breeding seabirds. The seabird’s faeces contribute to the fertility of the soil and the richness of invertebrate and lizard fauna which tuatara need to survive. 

Tuatara are ambush predators, meaning they sit patiently for prey to come to them. Their diet consists primarily of invertebrates such as beetles, wētā, worms, millipedes and spiders, and the remainder is made up of lizards, seabird eggs and chicks and even, on occasion, their own young.  

Conservation status: Least Concern (now so many islands have had the introduced mammal predators removed).

How we’re helping 

A conservation programme called ‘Headstart’ was initiated many years ago by several organisations, including the Department of Conservation, Auckland Zoo and other zoos, and Victoria University in Wellington. Its aim was to assist tuatara recovery on some islands by breeding them in an ex-situ environment and then returning the adults and their offspring, to their island sanctuaries once they were pest-free.

As part of the programme Auckland Zoo received adult tuatara from Cuvier and Stanley Islands off the Coromandel peninsula in 1990. During this time caring for the original adults, the Zoo, in partnership with Victoria University, successfully bred and released dozens of juvenile tuatara back to these pest-eradicated isles. 

After more than 30 successful years of Headstart, and additional island-to-island translocations, tuatara populations across New Zealand have increased by so much that the programme has been wrapped up. Ka pai! 

Now our collective conservation initiatives focus on keeping their wild habitats pest-free.  

Why are we doing it? 

Rats and other introduced mammalian predators are known to prey on tuatara eggs and young as well as compete for invertebrate food. Pest-free islands sanctuaries are key for the tuatara survival.  

How you can help 

When visiting a pest-free island, or islands that are becoming pest-free, make sure you check your gear before you leave the mainland.  

  • Check – your gear for pests such as rodents and insects 
  • Clean – footwear and gear, removing soil and seeds 
  • Seal – ensure your gear is zipped up (no open bags) 
  • Don’t take dogs to island reserves