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Tuatara: Sphenodontidae

Northern Tuatara (sphenodon Punctatus): Species Account

Physical characteristics: The northern tuatara is a beady-skinned, lizard-looking animal with a crest on the back of its head and on its back. Its color may be gray, greenish gray, red, or black. Males can reach more than 24 inches (61 centimeters) long and 2 pounds (1 kilogram). Females are smaller, usually growing to no more than 16 inches (40.6 centimeters) and 1 pound (0.5 kilograms).

Geographic range: The northern tuatara lives on about 30 islands off New Zealand's coast.

Habitat: Northern tuataras spend much of their lives in or around their underground burrows.

The people of New Zealand hold the tuatara in high regard and consider them to be living treasures. (Illustration by Brian Cressman. Reproduced by permission.)

Diet: Their diet is about 75 percent invertebrates, especially beetles and grasshoppers. They occasionally eat lizards, small birds, and other vertebrates (VER-teh-brehts), which are animals with backbones.

Behavior and reproduction: During the day, northern tuataras remain in their burrows, occasionally coming to the entrance to bask in the sun. They do most of their hunting at night. Although they get along quite well, considering that they may sometimes live less than 3 feet apart, the males do fight, especially during the breeding season. Males mate every year, but females mate only once every 2 to 5 years.

Northern Tuataras and people: Local people respect this reptile. The New Zealand government is very strict in its protection of the tuataras, even limiting travel to the islands where the reptiles live.

Conservation status: The World Conservation Union (IUCN) does not consider this species to be at risk, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers it to be Endangered or in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Efforts are under way to remove introduced predators, especially rats, from the tuatara's islands. ∎



Tesar, Jenny. What on Earth is a Tuatara? Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1994.


"Quick Bits: Tuatara." Ranger Rick. August 1999, vol. 33, page 12.

"Tuataras 'The Living Fossil' Explained." Monkeyshines on Health & Science. Spring 1998, page 14.

Web sites:

Musico, B. "Sphenodon punctatus." Animal Diversity Web. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sphenodon_punctatus.html (accessed on December 20, 2004).

"The Tuatara." Kiwi Conservation Club. http://www.kcc.org.nz/animals/tuatara.asp (accessed on December 20, 2004).

"Tuatara." San Diego Zoo. http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-tuatara.html (accessed on December 20, 2004).

"What Can You Tell Me About Tuatara?" Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/TePapa/English/CollectionsAndResearch/FAQs/FAQs_NaturalEnvironment.htm#tuatara (accessed on December 20, 2004).

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceDinosaurs, Snakes, and Other ReptilesTuatara: Sphenodontidae - Physical Characteristics, Habitat, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Conservation Status, Northern Tuatara (sphenodon Punctatus): Species Account - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, TUATARAS AND PEOPLE