The tuatara is a reptile endemic to New Zealand which, though it resembles most lizards, is actually part of a distinct lineage, order Sphenodontia. The two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of its order, which flourished around 200 million years ago. Their most recent common ancestor with any other extant group is with the squamates (lizards and snakes). For this reason, tuatara are of great interest in the study of the evolution of lizards and snakes, and for the reconstruction of the appearance and habits of the earliest diapsids (the group that also includes birds and crocodiles).
Tuatara are greenish brown, and measure up to 80 cm (32 in) from head to tail-tip with a spiny crest along the back, especially pronounced in males. Their dentition, in which two rows of teeth in the upper jaw overlap one row on the lower jaw, is unique among living species. They are further unusual in having a pronounced parietal eye, dubbed the "third eye", whose current function is a subject of ongoing research. They are able to hear although no external ear is present, and have a number of unique features in their skeleton, some of them apparently evolutionarily retained from fish. Although tuatara are sometimes called "living fossils", recent taxonomic and molecular work has shown that they have changed significantly since the Mesozoic era.
The tuatara has been classified as an endangered species since 1895 (the second species, S. guntheri, was not recognised until 1989). Tuatara, like many of New Zealand's native animals, are threatened by habitat loss and the introduced Polynesian Rat (Rattus exulans). They were extinct on the mainland, with the remaining populations confined to 32 offshore islands, until the first mainland release into the heavily fenced and monitored Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in 2005.
The name "tuatara" derives from the Māori language, and means "peaks on the back". As with many other Māori loanwords, the plural form is now generally the same as the singular in formal New Zealand English usage. "Tuataras" remains common in less formal speech, particularly among older speakers.
Tuatara were originally classified as lizards in 1831 when the British Museum received a skull. The genus remained misclassified until 1867, when Albert Günther of the British Museum noted features similar to birds, turtles and crocodiles. He proposed the order Rhynchocephalia (meaning "beak head") for the tuatara and its fossil relatives. Now, most authors prefer to use the more exclusive order name of Sphenodontia for the tuatara and its closest living relatives.
Many disparately related species were subsequently added to the Rhynchocephalia, resulting in what taxonomists call a "wastebasket taxon". Williston proposed the Sphenodontia to include only tuatara and their closest fossil relatives in 1925. Sphenodon is derived from the Greek for "wedge" (σφηνος/sphenos) and "tooth" (δόντι/odon(t)).
Tuatara have been referred to as living fossils. This means that they have remained mostly unchanged throughout their entire history, which is approximately 220 million years. However, taxonomic work on Sphenodontia has shown that this group has undergone a variety of changes throughout the Mesozoic, and a recent molecular study showed that their rate of molecular evolution is faster than of any other animal so far examined. Many of the niches occupied by lizards today were then held by sphenodontians. There was even a successful group of aquatic sphenodontians known as pleurosaurs, which differed markedly from living tuatara. Tuatara show cold weather adaptations that allow them to thrive on the islands of New Zealand; these adaptations may be unique to tuatara since their sphenodontian ancestors lived in the much warmer climates of the Mesozoic.
Sphenodon punctatus is further divided into two subspecies: the Cook Strait tuatara (unnamed subspecies), which lives on other islands in and near Cook Strait, and the northern tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus punctatus), which lives on the Bay of Plenty, and some islands further north.
The tuatara is considered the most unspecialised living amniote; the brain and mode of locomotion resemble that of amphibians and the heart is more primitive than that of any other reptile.
Both species are sexually dimorphic, males being larger. Adult S. punctatus males measure 61 cm (24 in) in length and females 45 cm (18 in). The San Diego Zoo even cites a length of up to 80 cm (31 in). Males weigh up to 1 kg (2.2 lb), and females up to 0.5 kg (1.1 lb). Brother's Island tuatara are slightly smaller, weighing up to 660 g (1.3 lb).
The tuatara's greenish brown colour matches its environment, and can change over its lifetime. Tuatara shed their skin at least once per year as adults, and three or four times a year as juveniles. Tuatara sexes differ in more than size. The spiny crest on a tuatara's back, made of triangular soft folds of skin, is larger in males, and can be stiffened for display. The male abdomen is narrower than the female's.
The tip of the upper jaw is beak-like and separated from the remainder of the jaw by a notch. There is a single row of teeth in the lower jaw and a double row in the upper, with the bottom row fitting perfectly between the two upper rows when the mouth is closed. This tooth arrangement is not seen in any other reptile; although most snakes have a double row of teeth in their upper jaw, their arrangement and function is different from the tuatara's. The jaws, joined by ligament, chew with backwards and forwards movements combined with a shearing up and down action. The force of the bite is suitable for shearing chitin and bone. The tuatara's teeth are not replaced, since they are not separate structures like real teeth, but sharp projections of the jaw bone. As their teeth wear down, older tuatara have to switch to softer prey such as earthworms, larvae, and slugs, and eventually have to chew their food between smooth jaw bones.
The tuatara has a third eye on the top of its head called the parietal eye. It has its own lens, cornea, retina with rod-like structures and degenerated nerve connection to the brain, suggesting it evolved from a real eye. The parietal eye is only visible in hatchlings, which have a translucent patch at the top centre of the skull. After four to six months it becomes covered with opaque scales and pigment. Its purpose is unknown, but it may be useful in absorbing ultraviolet rays to manufacture vitamin D, as well as to determine light/dark cycles, and help with thermoregulation. Of all extant tetrapods, the parietal eye is most pronounced in the tuatara. The parietal eye is part of the pineal complex, another part of which is the pineal gland, which in tuatara secretes melatonin at night. It has been shown that some salamanders use their pineal body to perceive polarised light, and thus determine the position of the sun, even under cloud cover, aiding navigation.
Together with turtles, the tuatara has the most primitive hearing organs among the amniotes. There is no eardrum and no earhole, and the middle ear cavity is filled with loose tissue, mostly adipose tissue. The stapes comes into contact with the quadrate (which is immovable) as well as the hyoid and squamosal. The hair cells are unspecialized, innervated by both afferent and efferent nerve fibres, and respond only to low frequencies. Even though the hearing organs are poorly developed and primitive with no visible external ears, they can still show a frequency response from 100-800 Hz, with peak sensitivity of 40 dB at 200 Hz.
The tuatara has gastralia, rib-like bones also called gastric or abdominal ribs, the presumed ancestral trait of diapsids. They are found in some lizards, where they are mostly made of cartilage, as well as crocodiles and the tuatara, and are not attached to the spine or thoracic ribs. The true ribs are small projections, with small, hooked bones, called uncinate processes, found on the rear of each rib. This feature is also present in birds. The tuatara is the only living tetrapod with well developed gastralia and uncinate processes.
In the early tetrapods, the gastralia and ribs with uncinate processes, together with bony elements such as bony plates in the skin (osteoderms) and clavicles (collar bone), would have formed a sort of exo-skeleton around the body, protecting the belly and helped to hold in the guts and inner organs. These anatomical details most likely evolved from structures involved in locomotion even before the vertebrates ventured onto land. The gastralia may have been involved in the breathing process in early amphibians and reptiles. The pelvis and shoulder girdles are arranged differently to those of lizards, as is the case with other parts of the internal anatomy and its scales.
Burrowing seabirds such as petrels, prions and shearwaters share the tuatara's island habitat during the bird's nesting season. The tuatara use the bird's burrows for shelter when available, or dig their own. The seabirds' guano helps to maintain invertebrate populations that tuatara predominantly prey on; including beetles, crickets and spiders. Their diet also consists of frogs, lizards and bird's eggs and chicks. The eggs and young of seabirds that are seasonally available as food for tuatara may provide beneficial fatty acids. Tuatara of both sexes defend territories, and will threaten and eventually bite intruders. The bite can cause serious injury. Tuatara will bite when approached, and do not let go easily. They can, however, be easily caught by lowering a tennis ball attached to a length of plastic into their burrow, and slowly retrieving the ball with the tuatara attached.
Tuatara reproduce very slowly, taking ten years to reach sexual maturity. Mating occurs in midsummer; females mate and lay eggs once every four years. During courtship, a male makes his skin darker, raises his crests and parades toward the female. He slowly walks in circles around the female with stiffened legs. The female will either submit, and allow the male to mount her, or retreat to her burrow. Males do not have a penis; they reproduce by the male lifting the tail of the female and placing his vent over hers. The sperm is then transferred into the female, much like the mating process in birds.
Tuatara eggs have a soft, parchment-like shell. It takes the females between one and three years to provide eggs with yolk, and up to seven months to form the shell. It then takes between 12 and 15 months from copulation to hatching. This means reproduction occurs at 2 to 5 year intervals, the slowest in any reptile. The sex of a hatchling depends on the temperature of the egg, with warmer eggs tending to produce male tuatara, and cooler eggs producing females. Eggs incubated at have an equal chance of being male or female. However, at , 80% are likely to be males, and at , 80% are likely to be females; at all hatchlings will be females. There is some evidence that sex determination in tuatara is determined by both genetic and environmental factors.
Tuatara probably have the slowest growth rates of any reptile, continuing to grow larger for the first 35 years of their lives. The average lifespan is about 60 years, but they can live to be over 100 years old.
The total population of tuatara of all species and subspecies is estimated to be greater than 60,000, but less than 100,000.
Pacific rats were eradicated on Middle Chain Island in 1992, Whatupuke in 1993, Lady Alice Island in 1994, and Coppermine Island in 1997. Following this program, juveniles have once again been seen on the latter three islands. In contrast, rats persist on Hen Island of the same group, and no juvenile tuatara had been seen there as of 2001. Middle Chain Island holds no tuatara, but it is considered possible for rats to swim between Middle Chain and other islands that do hold tuatara, and the rats were eradicated to prevent this.
Another rodent eradication was carried out on the Rangitoto Islands east of D’Urville Island, to prepare for the release of 432 Cook Strait tuatara juveniles in 2004, which were being raised at Victoria University as of 2001.
In late October 2007, it was announced that 50 tuatara collected as eggs from North Brother Island and hatched at Victoria University were being released onto Long Island in Cook Strait. The animals had been cared for at Wellington Zoo for the last five years and have been kept in secret in a specially built enclosure at the zoo, off display.
In 1996, 32 adult northern tuatara were moved from Moutoki Island to Moutohora. The carrying capacity of Moutohora is estimated at 8500 individuals, and the island could allow public viewing of wild tuatara.
A mainland release of S. punctatus occurred in 2005 in the heavily fenced and monitored Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. The second mainland release took place in October 2007, when a further 130 were transferred from Stephens Island to the Karori Sanctuary.
The tuatara was featured on one side of the New Zealand 5 cent coin, which was phased out in October 2006. Tuatara was also the name of the Journal of the Biological Society of Victoria University College and subsequently Victoria University of Wellington, published from 1947 until 1993.