Sphenodon punctatus Carnivore Nocturnal Status: Vulnerable
Distinctive enough from the more familiar reptilian groups (lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians), New Zealand’s tuatara are the sole living representatives of their taxonomic order, which flourished 200 million years ago. Their name in Maori means ‘peaks on the back’ and references their spiny dorsal crest.
Their anatomy has several unique features such as a photosensitive ‘third eye’, two rows of upper teeth, some skeletal features retained from fish, a primitive heart and an amphibian-like brain. Tuatara take 20 years to reach maturity, another 15 years to reach their full size and can live to be 60 or more. Until a nest was found in Wellington’s Karori Sanctuary in 2008, breeding populations of tuatara had been confined to offshore islands free from rats and other pests.
Photo courtesy of John Kershaw.