Featured Creature: Tuatara

Which ancient reptile is as old as crocodiles, has equally scary teeth, and can see all the way to the heavens?

Of course it’s New Zealand’s own Tuatara!

Photo by Bernard Spragg from Flickr

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, where clouds drift lengthily across aqua blue skies, a messenger lazily wandered the surface of the land, whispering echoes of Whiro, the evil one. With a blind eye, Tuatara kept his peaked protection to himself, seeking beings to whom he could spread the messages he was given. But the evil in Tuatara was recognizable, and so he wandered alone as others hid from him – a messenger with no audience.

So the legend goes. The Indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, have long spoken of the tuatara as the messenger to the god of darkness, evil, and death. These days, many look to the tuatara for a different kind of message – not the whisperings of Whiro, but hints at the evolutionary history of reptiles that are embodied in these “living fossils”.

Photo from Nature magazine

The Devil’s In The Details

The tuatara is a reptile endemic to New Zealand. Remaining relatively unchanged for millenia, there are only two extant species in the genera. The current classification makes the tuatara a reptile, but not a lizard, despite its similar appearance to iguanas. It even sports spines along its back, similar to the iguana, which are also the source of its name; tuatara means “peaks on the back” in Māori. 

But there’s a fun superpower hidden in the tuatara – an actual third eye on the top of their head. Originally thought to be fully functional, but now covered by skin, it is believed that this eye can still “see” shadows up above, helping our dinosaur-like friend to be aware of raptors and other elevated predators.

Iff they are not caught themselves, but instead catch their own prey, tuataras can rely on their three rows of teeth to secure a meal. No other creature known today has two rows of teeth in the top jaw, overlapping a single row in the bottom jaw. It’s at turns impressive and absurd to think of them nom, nom, nomming away at insects and small lizards with their fearsome three rows of teeth!

Photo from Lab Manager

Speaking of dinosaurs, our little reptile buddy basically is one. Belonging to an order that first appeared in the Triassic age, Rhynchocephalia all but went extinct, leaving only the tuatara, protected by isolation and an impressive mountain range, still alive today. Now their closest relatives are snakes and lizards, and like a lot of New Zealand’s weird and wacky creatures, tuataras represent the end of their evolutionary line. 

But how long those lifespans last is yet another question! We know they can live over 60 years in the wild, and we’ve even known them to live over 100 years in captivity, but what we’ve struggled to figure out is how to tell how old one is without observing the birth. With so few in the wild, and such a long life, it can be hard to get measurements, and so scientists are looking for other kinds of markers to deduce the age of an individual. 

However,  we can tell adolescents from adults with some confidence as they tend to be diurnal. The nocturnal adults will sometimes prey on and eat the children, so the kids hide in the light of sunrise and sunset. That’s one high-stakes game of hide and seek. 

Male Tuatara around 30 years old (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Speaking Their Language

The Māori people have inhabited what we now call New Zealand for at least 700 years. Originally from Polynesia, they promptly named the north island Aotearoa, which means “land of the long white cloud”. Along with the Tuatara, there are many small species of birds and reptiles that are both unique and endemic to New Zealand, and of course the Māori have beautiful, vowel-filled names for them all. So I thought we might take a little trip now into the language of the Māori people.

First of all, let’s learn how to pronounce Māori the way the locals say it, with this video:

Next, let’s learn how to say the proper name of the country, Aotearoa:

And finally, a greeting of friendship, kia ora. Like their Hawaiian cousins’ term “aloha”, this informal greeting can mean many things, including “good luck” and “take care”:

Tuataras are indeed a unique creature inhabiting a unique land. And they’re probably not evil. Although I am not sticking my finger anywhere near that mouth to find out!

With eyes turned to heaven,


With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in Pacific Northwest native flora, decentralized water retention, and holistic land management, she is dedicated to living a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.

Bradford Haami, ‘Ngārara – reptiles – What are ngārara?’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ngarara-reptiles/page-1 (accessed 28 March 2023)
Bradford Haami, ‘Ngārara – reptiles’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ngarara-reptiles/print (accessed 28 March 2023)