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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4 (July 2, 1934.)

The World's Aristocrat — New Zealand's Wonder Reptile

page 30

The World's Aristocrat
New Zealand's Wonder Reptile.

If there is a living creature in all the animal kingdom which merits the appellation “aristocrat,” it is the tuatara, a remarkable reptile found only in New Zealand. This extraordinary reptile, which formerly possessed three active eyes (the third being still visible in a rudimentary form) is one of the most ancient types whose nearest relative, the Homaeosaurus, became extinct in Europe by the middle of the Mesozoic era, variously estimated at between 100 and 150 million years ago. This is a lineage of which any living land animal could be proud. And the tuatara has no living near-relative.

The full-grown tuatara is about twenty inches in length, and weighs approximately two pounds. Its colour is of a yellowish or greenish olive, the female, which is slightly larger than the male, being generally darker in shade.

The tuatara belongs to the genus sphenodon (or hatteria punctata). The scales on the upper surface are small and granular, intermixed with small tubercules. Those of the lower surface are large and transverse. It has no ear openings. The tail is compressed on the sides like an alligator's. The toes are webbed at the base. There is a low crest of white spines which extends from the back of the head, with a small interruption at the nape, along the back and tail. It has parallel rows of teeth in the upper part of the jaw, and a single row in the lower. When the tail is broken off it will grow again as in all true lizards. The eyes, adapted for nocturnal vision, have in daylight vertical pupils.

But it is the fact that it possesses a rudimentary third eye which singles out the tuatara for special distinction. This cyclopeaan eye is situated on the top of the head, and on removal of the skin it is found embedded in the tissues of the brain. There still remains a small opening in the top of the skull from which the third eye formerly protruded. This optic is believed by a number of scientists to have been developed for the set and only purpose of preserving the tuatara from overhead enemies in the dim ages of the past.

The greatest enemy of the prehistoric tuatara was probably the pterodactyl, a voracious Bat-like flying reptile of various sizes, some being as small as a sparrow while others had a wing-spread of twenty feet from tip to tip.

The pterodactyls were the “destroyers” of the air, ready to pounce down on the undefensive smaller reptiles. The tuatara, therefore, could only survive by a constant watchfulness against overhead attack, and thereupon Nature in her benignity furnished the tuatara with a third eye (like a periscope) on the top of its head so that when the pterodactyl came winging through the air it was able to escape by diving quickly into its burrow or by seeking safety from attack in the bottom of the marshes.

The tuatara formerly inhabited both the main islands of New Zealand, but is now restricted to a few small islands off the coast of this country. The reptile is most plentiful, now, on Stephen's Island, in Cook Strait. The New Zealand Government protects the tuatara by an Order-in-Council, and anyone killing or capturing one of these reptiles is liable to a heavy penalty.

In 1843, Dr. Dieffenbach, naturalist to the New Zealand Company, wrote that he heard of the existence of a large lizard which the Maoris called the tuatara, or ngarara, as a general name, and of which they were afraid. Eventually he procured a live specimen.

The tuataras live in holes in the ground, generally with a petrel, sharing lodgings with that bird, like the rattlesnake and the prairie dog and can be got out only by digging. They hollow out a chamber about three feet in length and one foot in width. The entrance, however, is so narrow that there is barely space for the tuatara to squeeze in. The petrel builds its nest separately in these chambers, the tuatara occupying the opposite side. The petrel digs the holes in solid earth, while the tuatara only burrows where the earth is soft and loose, and sleeps in these burrows during the greater part of the day.

The diet of the tuatara consists mainly of beetles, grasshoppers and spiders, but it will eat any small animal so long as it is alive. These reptiles are rather peculiar in their feeding, sometimes fasting for months, and then suddenly eating heartily every day. In captivity the tuatara will eat live earthworms or thin shreds of raw beef if these foods are hung up in the cage, and they are partial to live snails.

The tuatara lays its eggs in holes which are specially dug for the purpose. The eggs are white and soft, with a semi-calcareous shell, and are about one inch in length. Eight to ten eggs are laid at a time and do not hatch till about twelve or thirteen months afterwards.

It is belièved that the tuatara was killed in large numbers for food by the early Polynesian natives. Portions of the skeletons of tuataras are found even nowadays in the ancient middens of the Maoris, sometimes in the sand near Lyall Bay, Wellington. Seeing that the total area of the North and South islands of New Zealand is 103,000 square miles, the early native inhabitants must have done some extensive ranging to have practically exterminated the tuatara from these islands. However, the tuatara, thanks to the legislation of a wise Government, still holds sway on the islands off the coast. May our little prehistoric survivor long continue to thrive there in peace!

New Zealand's interesting reptile, the tuatara.

New Zealand's interesting reptile, the tuatara.