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Tuatara: Volume 29, Issues 1 and 2, August 1987

To a Tuatara

This little verse was re-discovered during a recent tidy-up in the Zoology Department. With a date of December 1967, we feel it has been sheltered for too long and deserves publication. The Author notes that the verse “is dedicated to the totem of the Biological Society of Victoria.” Its tardy appearance coincides with a resurgence of interest in the reproductive biology of tuataras as indicated in the explanatory note below. Editor.

To A Tuatara

What use the triple optic,
And what can it avail
To have the knack of growing back
(In case of need) a tail?

The sorriest of reptiles,
With sad and scaly face,
Bewails the lack of virile Jack
To propagate his race.

He envies cassowaries;
He yearns to be a duck.
This hapless tail-encumbered male
Is sorely out of luck.

His shortcomings considered,
He seeks a puffin hole,
And hides away throughout the day
To mollify his soul.

His plight is to be pitied;
His bitterness is keen;
And Sphenodon coition
Is almost never seen.

The females are so timid.
They're very hard to catch.
The eggs are small (if laid at all).
And take an age to hatch.

So pity tuataras
Who give the triple wink.
At such a pace, their very race
Is verging on the brink.

Ralph A. Lewin

University of California, San Diego 23 Dec. 1967
page 33

It falls to me to add a few words to clarify the plight of the old man tuatara to those not so intimately familiar with the old fellow as Ralph A. Lewin. Our friend, the tuatara, is famed for possession of the so-called third, or parietal, eye. Having a lens, retina and major nervous connection to the brain, the third eye is better developed in juvenile tuatara than in any other vertebrate. With age, it degenerates, and its function is still a major topic of research. As well as the optic added extra, tuatara have the ability to regenerate their tails, and, in fact, will voluntarily jettison their tail in the face of adversity, only to lead to the budding of a replacement appendage.

Despite these special attributes, tuatara are unique amongst modern reptiles in that the male lacks an intromittent organ. Lizards and snakes have two! Crocodiles and turtles have one. but the tuatara missed out completely. This is a characteristic the tuatara shares with birds. The nocturnal tuatara also shares the burrows of several of his oceanic avian counterparts, particularly fairy prions, although seldom at the same time.

Reproduction in tuatara is presently the subject of a major research programme at Victoria University and still there are many unanswered questions. We do know that female tuatara do not reproduce every year. Although some have been recorded breeding twice in three years, it is not known if this is usual. Mating occurs in autumn but nesting does not occur until late spring and then the eggs develop slowly in the soil before hatching in the second summer following oviposition. This may be one of the reasons that tuatara are vulnerable to rats; their is ample time for the rodents to detect and consume eggs and embryos. Thus, the long incubation combined with a need for special nesting areas may contribute to the “threatened” status of tuatara.

Editors' Note

We apologise to our readers for this delay in the production of Volume 29 and for combining parts 1 and 2. This was due to a lack of material received for publication. We have been promised, what will clearly be several very interesting articles for Volume 30 and would welcome the receipt of further manuscripts.