If you’re a small New Zealand cliff bird called a fairy prion, and why wouldn’t you be, a tuatara lizard is one of the best housemates you’ll ever have. If you save it the job of digging a burrow, it will pay you back in spades. Most of the time.
24-hour pest control
Leaving your (literal) crap (not literally) everywhere can attract insects, arachnids and other kinds of small nasties. Fortunately, the tuatara is more than happy to clean your burrow by chomping through them all. What’s more, it won’t cramp your style.
Days are for sleeping, nights are for living
As one of few reptiles who prefer slightly lower temperatures, from 5°C-25°C (41°F-77°F) tops, the tuatara will keep its head down during the day, basking near the burrow entrance, so you can flit in and out for your birdy business. At night, it will leave you to your devices while it goes hunting, away from the hungry gaze of day predators. And if you do fancy its company, it has some amazing stories to tell.
Tales from the Triassic
Coming from the bird class Aves, you’re descended from the mighty dinosaurs, and the tuatara’s ancestors, the Rhynchocephalia group, appeared on Earth around the same time in the mid-Triassic, 250-240 million years ago. In fact, all other members of the group died out 60 million years ago, so you’d almost have a living fossil staying with you! Although you probably spotted that from its lack of ear holes, fused “beak-like” snout, and the “parietal” third eye on its head. It wouldn’t be watching you per se, more likely the light levels, so it has a built-in calendar too! Handy for working out when breeding season is. Speaking of which:
Don’t worry – there’d be plenty of room for your chicks. Suspiciously so, in fact.
When the tuatara does breed, the males keep out of family life, and the females only get down and dirty every four years. That’s thankfully out of sight, as is where she buries her 10 or so eggs, and only about 42% of them will hatch after the best part of two years. A word to the wise though: a tuatara may be partial to your first born. Or second born. It’s nothing personal, it sometimes eats its own as well. And you shouldn’t leave your eggs lying around anyway. If that last bit gives you pause, consider this.
Doing your bit for nature
The tuatara has nowhere else to go. It was kicked off the North and South islands in the 1700s, most likely by rats, and now this and 31 other offshore islands are its only haven. The humans are trying to rectify this by reintroducing it elsewhere, but for now, can you overlook the odd misplaced egg and think of its extermination skills, its cool legacy stories, and its low maintenance? Besides, you’re a sea bird. It would be nice for you and your relatives to be known for something other than stealing chips, wouldn’t it?
Latin: Sphenodon punctatus (Sphenodon guntheri, or the Brothers Island tuatara, was considered a separate species until 2009)
What? Spiky lizard from New Zealand. Its name is the Maori word for “peaks on the back”
Where? On roughly 32 of the off-shore islands of New Zealand, mainly in the Cook Strait
How big? 50-60 cm / 20-24 inches snout to tail end
Endangered? While technically Least Concern, the tuatara is in need of active conservation due to a low reproductive rate and fierce competition with rats and other introduced mammals.
Probable motto: My ancestors survived the dinosaurs, the comet, and the Ice Age. So losing to rats is just embarrassing.
They look cool. Do they need my help at all?
Aside from captive breeding, and keeping rats and mice away from the tuatara’s island strongholds, there aren’t many active campaigns at the moment. However, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has a list of local conservation organisations.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Prion“. Britannica.com.
Gaze, Peter. 2001. “Tuatara recovery plan 2001-2011“. Department of Conservation, Te Papa Atawhai.
“Sphenodon punctatus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Tuatara“. No date. Department of Conservation, Te Papa Atawhai.
“Tuatara“. No date. San Diego Zoo.
“Vertebrate diversity“. No date. University College London.
Zug, George R. No date. “Tuatara“. Britannica.com.
Featured image credit: “Native New Zealand Tuatara Reptile portrait” by Hanna Tornyai