Friday, May 27, 2016

TUATARA: Dedication to Your Cause

Although Tuatara resembles a lizard, He is not one. Tuatara is the last surviving species of the ancient order of Rhynchocephalia (“beak-heads”). Only his family of Sphenodontidae (“wedge-toothed”) is left of this group of reptiles. The rest of the Rhynchocephalia went extinct about 60 million years ago. Because of that, Tuatara is often thought of as a “living fossil.” (However, He has actually evolved to live in modern times.) Because of his link to prehistoric reptiles, scientists can study Tuatara to see how lizards and snakes evolved.

Tuatara has distinctive characteristics that makes Him different from lizards. He has fused jaw teeth, and a beak formed by overhanging upper teeth. (This is what gives Tuatara, a “beak-head.”) Like some dinosaurs, Tuatara has a large opening in his skull behind his eye socket. He also has a third eyelid that passes over his open eyes. Tuatara has gastralia (“abdominal ribs”) which lizards and snakes do not. All these qualities indicate that his lineage is older than theirs.

Tuatara’s most notable feature is his ridge of small spines, which runs from his head to his tail. The Maori of New Zealand call this reptile “tuatara,” which means “peaks on the back.” When threatened, Tuatara will raise these spines. To startle his enemies, He elevates his spines and opens his bright red mouth.

Unlike lizards, Tuatara has a tolerance for exceptionally cool temperatures. He has colder blood than any other active reptile. Because of his slow metabolism, Tuatara spends little energy and much of his time in his snug burrow. When resting, He breathes only once per minute, and while walking, only once every seven seconds. Because of these factors, Tuatara can live beyond 100 years, longer than any lizard. However, it takes about twenty years for him to become an adult.

Legally protected in New Zealand since 1895, Tuatara’s numbers still steadily declined. The local kiore (rats) ate Tuatara’s eggs both on the mainland as well as on the coastal islands. Since Tuatara reproduce very slowly (once every five years), this became a great disaster. Tuatara simply could not recover from the losses inflicted by the kiore. Starting in the 1980s, a concerted effort by the government, volunteers, and Maori iwi (tribes) stopped Tuatara’s decline. They removed kiore from coastal islands and re-established Tuatara populations, thereby increasing his “safe homes” to 37 islands. For the first time in hundreds of years, Tuatara now live on Mainland New Zealand at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington.

Tuatara teaches dedication. The people of New Zealand are determined to keep Tuatara, one of their iconic animals, from going extinct. Spending tremendous amounts of energy, money, and time, people raised captive young, eradicated kiore from various islands, and cared for re-introduced populations. Today Tuatara has been returned to many places where He went extinct. Imagine the help that this distinctive reptile can give you to find your life’s mission. He can inspire to dedicate yourself to a worthy cause. Just do not think of Tuatara as “an ordinary lizard,” since He is neither.

The picture is of Henry, the world's oldest Tuatara in captivity at Invercargill, New Zealand. Still active at 111 years of age.

Picture of Henry: By KeresH (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons. Title:  "Henry at Invercargill"

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