39 / Tuatara

Sphenodon punctatus

The tuatara may look like a lizard, but it is in fact a reptile. It has been described as ‘New Zealand’s most distinctive creature’, and is a ‘living fossil’, being closely related to other reptiles that died out some 100 million years ago. Tuatara once lived on the mainland of New Zealand, but are now restricted mostly to islands off the northeast of the North Island and Cook Strait. Essentially nocturnal, the tuatara has the peculiar habit of sharing burrows with nesting petrels. It matures slowly, reaching a maximum size of about 60cm and an average age of 60 years, although some can live to be over 100. Despite being small and insectivorous, their Triassic ancestry and consequent dinosaur-like appearance have inspired many sci-fi movie monsters. The taniwha (a monster from Māori mythology) is generally depicted as a similar creature to a tuatara.

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