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The New Zealand Tuatara

(Sphenodon punctatus)

an odd reptile

The illustration of the tuatara comes compliments Arnoldo Mondadori Ltd.

The lizard-like tuatara occurs on 30 or so small islands off New Zealand. It is the only member of the order, Rhynchocephalia. The other three reptile orders are Crocodilia (crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gavials), Testudines (turtles, tortoises and terrapins) and Squamata (lizards and snakes). It shares some characteristics with the Crocodilia, others with the Testudines and still others with the Squamata. It is quite distinct amongst the existing reptiles in lacking copulatory organs.

This unique reptile grows to 70cm in total length, mainly moves about at night and feeds on invertebrates (insects, spiders, worms, etc) and to a lesser degree bird's eggs, chicks and small seabirds. It shares the islands where it occurs with burrow-nesting seabirds, particularly the medium-sized fairy prion (Pachyptila turtur) and diving petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix). The tuatara obtains many of life's requirements from its association with these birds. Although the tuatara digs the occasional burrow for its home, it more often shares one constructed by a nesting bird. These burrows are also rich in invertebrates, its favourite food.

It has a long life-span with sexual maturity not reached for twenty or so years. On many of the islands the population consists almost wholly of old adults. Coincidently, these islands have large numbers of introduced rats (rattus spp). Maybe on these islands the tuatara's eggs and young are being eaten by the rats. Much research is ongoing to understand the tuatara's life-history and to eradicate the rats so that this reptile does not go the same way as the dinosaurs. This would be sad if it happened, particularly if was found to be a direct result of predation by rats. Rats introduced to the islands accidentally by humans.

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