Story: Tuatara

Page 1. Life history

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What are tuatara?

Tuatara are lizard-like reptiles, found only in New Zealand. Adults are between 30 and 75 centimetres long, and weigh between 250 and 1,200 grams. Males are larger than females, and have more developed spines in the crest along the neck, back and tail.

Tuatara are among New Zealand’s most famous animals, second only to kiwi. They are representative of ancient, endemic life forms.

Importance to Māori

Tuatara are of great cultural significance to Māori, and feature in some creation stories. Some iwi (tribes) view tuatara as the kaitiaki (guardians) of knowledge.

Living fossils

Tuatara are the only living representatives of an ancient lineage – the order Sphenodontia, over 250 million years old. The other reptiles – crocodiles, turtles, snakes and lizards – have many species worldwide, but just two species of tuatara survive, and only in New Zealand.

Because tuatara still look like the fossil Sphenodontians which lived during the age of dinosaurs, 220 million years ago, they are often called living fossils. Many anatomical features distinguish them from other living reptiles – for example, they have a defining pattern of openings in the skull and a unique type of haemoglobin in the blood, and males have no external reproductive organ.

Habitat and feeding

Tuatara live in burrows and are more active at night, but will come out during the day to bask in the sun. Both sexes are territorial, and males aggressively defend their territory by posturing, displaying, and fighting if necessary. Teeth are their main weapons, and a bite can cause serious injury. Tuatara are carnivorous, eating invertebrates, lizards, frogs, small tuatara, and the chicks of seabirds with which they often share burrows.


Tuatara mate in late summer. The male courts the female by approaching her with a proud walk. He mounts the female, positioning her with his hind legs and tail to align their reproductive openings for the transferral of sperm. The female usually lays 6–10 eggs the following spring, in a shallow nest in the ground. She may guard the nest for a few nights, then return to her own burrow. The eggs incubate for about a year, so hatchlings emerge when eggs are being laid the following season. The hatchlings receive no parental care and have to fend for themselves. Male tuatara mate annually, while females do so only once every two to seven years, depending on the availability and quality of food.

Life span

Like many other New Zealand animals, tuatara live for a long time. They reach reproductive maturity at about 15 years, and may breed for many decades. Their maximum lifespan is not known for certain, but some tuatara have reached 80 years, still looking vigorous and healthy. They may live to 100 years or more.

A cultural icon

Tuatara are a New Zealand icon. They feature in paintings and sculptures, record covers (such as Tuatara, a compilation by Flying Nun records, first released in 1985), stamps and coins. From 1967, when it replaced the sixpence, until 2006, when it was taken out of circulation, the five-cent coin featured a tuatara on a rocky shore.

How to cite this page:

Charles Daugherty and Susan Keall, 'Tuatara - Life history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Charles Daugherty and Susan Keall, published 24 Sep 2007