What is a TUATARA?

Today starts a three-part series written by one of Discovery Education’s high school apprentices. Marie Thomas, a senior who attends Episcopal High School in Virginia, is going to give you some amazing insight into some unique animals. She starts with her personal favorite, tackles the mystery of the honey bee, and will end the series on Friday with a look into cicadas, which are getting ready to swarm the East Coast!

Byline: Marie Thomas

Growing up, I was not like most little girls. My favorite animal was not something adorable, instead I was fascinated with lions, tigers and DINOSAURS. I was a dino girl, and my favorite stuffed animal continues to be the stuffed dinosaur my sister gave me when I couldn’t even talk.

That’s why this post strikes such a chord with me. This post is about a reptile, not a lizard — although looks can be deceiving — identified as a tuatara.

(photo courtesy of Lexi and Jasper from doggieadventures at wordpress.com)

You’re probably thinking, what does a tuatara have to do with your love of dinosaurs? Well, a tuatara is famous because it is the only survivor of an ancient group of reptiles that roamed the earth at the same time as dinosaurs!! It is crazy to think that this reptile species has been around for 225 million years! Tuatara is also called the living fossil because its relatives died about 60 million years ago!

Tuataras are native to New Zealand and can only survive on islands with no introduced predators. Tuataras are a very unique and endangered species. They only live on various offshore islands away from any invasive animals. Because they have lived on different islands they have evolved into different species. The known species are: Stanley Island tuataras, Curvier tuataras and Stephen’s Island tuataras.

Tuataras have no visible ears but they can hear sounds. They also have a third eye on their forehead to detect light. Many features in its skeleton are similar to fish and they have a double row of teeth on their top jaw! Their teeth allow them to indulge in some grisly eating habits. They often live in old burrows previously dug by seabirds but they aren’t likely to share with the birds. A tuatara might bite off a baby bird’s head if it is hungry – which doesn’t make it a very good house guest! I would not want to come in contact with one when they are hungry.

Because Tuataras are reptiles, they start their lives as eggs in the ground, and interestingly the temperature of the soil they are surrounded by decides the gender of the reptile. The warmer the soil around the eggs the more likely the eggs will hatch into males and the cooler the soil, the more likely the eggs will hatch into females. Unfortunately with the climate changes occurring, scientists predict that most tuataras will be born male and thus the tuatara will become extinct. Oh no!

Learning about tuataras can teach you about the role of evolution! (You can find more information about tuataras in your Discovery Education account.)

6 comments… add one

  • Mike D May 24, 2013, 12:53 am

    Awesome Animal

  • Mike D May 24, 2013, 12:54 am


  • Ginny Washburne May 30, 2013, 2:02 pm

    That’s so sad to hear about their possible extinction!

  • JD May 30, 2013, 2:23 pm

    awesome animal looks a million years old, i wonder if it is a carnivore. herbivore, or an omnivore.

  • JD May 30, 2013, 2:24 pm

    how heavy, how long,how old?

  • A. May 30, 2013, 2:51 pm

    cool but when up close to gross


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