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Tuatara Factsheet
(Sphenodon punctatus)

Restoration * Visitor Experience * Facts

Tuatara close-up  

Quick Facts

Maori Name: Tuatara
Common Name: Tuatara
Latin Name: Sphenodon punctatus
Order: Sphenodontia

  • Only surviving member of an ancient order of reptiles.
  • Only found in New Zealand.
Tuatara close-up
Photo by Tom Lynch

Family History

  • Tuatara are the only living members of an ancient order of reptiles that evolved around 220 million years ago. These reptiles died out everywhere except in New Zealand.
  • They were once found all over New Zealand, but are now found in the wild only on offshore islands such as Stephens Island and Little Barrier Island, and now, in the wild on the mainland at Karori Wildlife Sanctuary – the first time they have been in the wild on the mainland in over 200 years!
Male and female tuatara
Male (top) and female (bottom) tuatara


  • Their colour ranges from olive green to brown to an orange-red.
  • The male tuatara grows to a maximum length of 60cm, weighs up to 1kg and has a strongly developed crest of spines along its back. The female tuatara is smaller with smaller spines; they grow to a maximum length of 50cm and weigh up to 550grams.


  • Although tuatara are most active at night when it is cooler, they often bask in the sun to warm up.
  • Tuatara eat mainly large invertebrates, such as weta and spiders, but have been known to eat the eggs and chicks of the fairy prion, a bird whose burrows they often share.
  • They are capable of holding their breath for nearly an hour.
  • Although they can make a croaking noise, tuatara usually use body language to communicate with each other.


  • Tuatara are solitary as adults and become territorial from about six months of age.
  • Tuatara reach sexual maturity at about 15 years of age.
  • Mating usually takes place from January through to March, but the females mate only every 2-5 years. About 8-9 months after mating, she will lay and bury 6-10 eggs which hatch about 11-16 months later.
  • Like most reptiles, the young fend for themselves from birth.
  • The sex of tuatara is decided by the soil temperature around the eggs. Other reptiles show this peculiarity too (e.g., crocodiles, turtles). For tuatara, warm soil produces males, and cool soil produces females.

Interesting Facts

  • Tuatara means “spiny back” in Maori.
  • Tuatara have a legendary “third eye”. It is on top of the brain between it's other eyes. They cannot actually see out of this eye. Some scientists believe that this third eye may function as a light sensor, influencing the amount of time a tuatara spends basking. It is particularly noticeable in hatchlings, which have a patch of clear (unpigmented) scales at the top centre of the skull.
  • Tuatara teeth, also, are different from those of other reptiles. They have a single row of teeth in the lower jaw, and a double row in the upper jaw; the bottom row fitting neatly between the two upper rows. Little more than serrations of the jaw, they are not replaced when worn out or damaged, and some old tuatara are virtually toothless, chewing their food between smooth jaw bones.
  • Tuatara have one of the slowest growth rates of any reptile.
  • They shed their skin once a year.
  • Tuatara use their ‘egg tooth’, a spike on the end of their snout, to break out of their egg. The ‘egg tooth’ will fall off during the first three weeks of life.
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