Kia ora, Mates!
There are many, many unique and wonderful things that you’ll find in New Zealand. Wonderful people… Wonderful scenery… Wonderful lifestyle…
One of New Zealand’s many unique animals are the Tuataras (OK, and the kiwis, too). Tuataras are endemic to New Zealand and only New Zealand. Tuataras are called “living dinosaurs” or “living fossils,” but they’re genetic purity is only about 100 million years old – younger than the dinosaurs. Tuataras look a lot like any other lizard species and that’s where the similarities end.
First, tuataras are extremely long-lived. In the gallery that follows, “Henry the Tuatara” became a father for the first time (how do they know?) when he was 111 years old, which was a few years ago. Another interesting thing about tuataras is that they have a “third eye” when they hatch – a photoreceptive site on the top of their heads of unknown (to humans) function, but likely some type of a photoreceptor that aids with their Circadian rhythms. The third thing that I find very interesting about tuataras is that they don’t have teeth, per se. Their “teeth” are actually serrations on their jaws rather than separate bones (teeth) that grow from the jaws/mandibles. It’s a very interesting dentition style, eh??
Finally, the other “interesting” thing about tuatara is how endangered they are and the efforts that Kiwis (the people, not the birds) are putting in to saving the tuatara and other endemic species. As you may have heard me discuss before (rail?), New Zealand has a great number of introduced species (it’s tough being an environmental scientist). This all started when the first people arrived in New Zealand hundreds and thousands of years ago. These early human colonizers brought rats with them and rats have been a problem here ever since because there are no natural predators or diseases. The native wildlife (think tuataras, kiwis and other birds, among others) evolved such that they weren’t worried about ground-based predators since the major predators came from the sky – Haast eagles, for example. Later human colonizers (i.e., the English and other Europeans) chose to bring other animals like rabbits. Once the rabbits started to overrun New Zealand (again, no natural predators), the human colonizers brought in stoats (a.k.a., ermine [weasels]) to control the rabbits. But then, the stoats went wild and, along with the rats, ate all of these ground-dwelling animals’ eggs (once they ran out of rabbits) – not just the tuatara, but also the kiwi and other native ground-dwelling birds. Yes, if you haven’t figured it out, New Zealand is close to being an ecological disaster – but, it’s still a very beautiful ecological disaster!
Nowadays, there are very few “wild” tuatara (and kiwi, and kaka and …). The tuatara populations are mostly found on isolated islands on the north sides of the South Island (in the Cook Strait) and north of the North Island. On these islands, either the non-native predators were never introduced or they’ve been eradicated – in either case, the tuatara can live a relatively safe life. Similarly, there are isolated islands off of the west coast of the South Island where endangered bird species have been re-introduced after the removal of the non-native predators (if they were ever present). Hiking around New Zealand, it’s very interesting to see the efforts that the Department of Conservation is putting into capturing rats, stoats and possum (not the same as North American opossum) in traps (or, through poison bait – a.k.a., 1080) so that the native wildlife might better survive.
So, I hope that you’ll enjoy these few photographs of tuatara (remember to “click” on the icon at the bottom right to view the slideshow full screen) who are being raised at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery – good luck finding them in the wild. And, be careful – you may have learned something!