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Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

The Brothers Island tuatara is terrestrial and primarily nocturnal, though, as an ectotherm, it spends part of its day basking in the sun outside its burrow to warm up. It does not drink water, and feeds at night on insects, worms, snails, birds eggs, chicks and occasionally even its own young (4). A special type of jaw movement allows the tuatara to shear bony prey with ease (5). In addition, the tuatara has pronounced jaw muscles due to the skull's bone arrangement: like most modern reptiles (except for turtles), this species has a diapsid skull. This means it has two holes behind the eye-holes, and a greater bone surface area for muscle attachment. As a result the tuatara's head is huge, the jaw muscles pronounced, and the bite ferocious (6). They often take over and live in bird burrows, though tuatara can and frequently do construct their own burrows (5). Several may use the same burrow, although at different times, and residents can be quite aggressive to intruders (5). Females only reproduce once every two to five years, and males compete for the right to mate, with territorial displays, aggressive fights and erected crests to make them appear larger than they are (4). Mating occurs between January and March and eggs are laid from October to December (2). About 8 to 15 eggs are deposited in small, specially constructed chambers, covered with soil and abandoned. They hatch after 12 to 15 months, which is the longest hatching time for any reptile (2) (5). The sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature: warm soil temperatures produce males, while cool soil temperatures produce females (5). Individuals reach maturity between 9 and 13 years of age, which may seem late, but these fascinating reptiles are believed to live for over 100 years (2). Their long life is the product of having an extremely low metabolic rate, and a slow growth rate, which is due to their tolerance to extremely cool weather. Indeed the activity levels of the tuatara peak at body temperatures of 12 to 17 degrees Celsius, the lowest for any reptile. This is probably why they have been able to survive in New Zealand's temperate climate for so long (4).
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Description

The Brothers Island tuatara is one of the oldest animals in the world today (4). It may look like a lizard but it belongs to the order Rhynchocephalia, which includes ancient reptiles that existed 200 million years ago. All other species in this order, apart from the tuataras, declined and eventually became extinct about 60 million years ago. Tuataras are therefore of huge interest to biologists as they represent the only living link to these ancient reptiles. The Brothers Island tuatara is one of two species of tuatara, the other being the more common Sphenodon punctatus species, which is found on the Northern Islands (5). The Brothers Island tuatara has a lizard-like body, and a long tail, stocky legs, long claws and a large head. A crest of spines runs along its back, neck and head: a characteristic which led to its Maori name, meaning 'peaks on the back,' (4) (5). Males are larger than females, with larger spines, though they look similar with olive green, grey, or dark pink body colouration, and speckles of grey, white or yellow. Newly hatched young are brown or grey, with pink tinges and a striped throat (5). This reptile has the unusual feature of a third pineal eye: This eye has a retina, a rudimentary lens and is connected to the brain by a nerve. While it is apparent in infants, it becomes covered by opaque scales in adults, so it is unknown whether the eye serves any function (4).
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Distribution

Continent: Oceania
Distribution: New Zealand (North Brother Island, Cook Strait)
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Source: The Reptile Database

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Historic Range:
New Zealand (N. Brother's Island)

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Range

This rare species is only found on Brothers Island, off the coast of New Zealand. It has survived there for 200 million years because there are no natural predators. A recent survey estimated that only 400 individuals exist here (2) (5).
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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Source: IUCN

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Inhabits low forest, scrub areas and rock stacks on Brothers Island, and is found between zero and three hundred meters above sea level, where the climate is cool (2) (5). The island is also occupied by petrel and shearwater birds, which provide the tuatara with many benefits (5).
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
VU
Vulnerable

Red List Criteria
D1+2

Version
2.3

Year Assessed
1996
  • Needs updating

Assessor/s
Australasian Reptile & Amphibian Specialist Group

Reviewer/s

Contributor/s

History
  • 1994
    Endangered
    (Groombridge 1994)
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Current Listing Status Summary

Status: Endangered
Date Listed: 06/02/1970
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10) 
Where Listed: Entire


Population detail:

Population location: Entire
Listing status: E

For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Sphenodon guntheri , see its USFWS Species Profile

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Status

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix 1 of CITES (3).
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Threats

Evidence suggests that the tuatara cannot persist in areas where rats are present due to competition with these fast breeding rodents. They do not occur on Brothers Island but there is concern that Polynesian rats, Rattus exulans, which occur on other islands, may spread by boats and on driftwood to Brothers Island (7). Tuatara are also predated on by introduced animals such as dogs and cats (8). Furthermore, scientists warn that climate change could have significant impact on this species as the eggs are sensitive to small changes in temperature that could alter the sex ratio and unbalance the reproductive success of a population. Tuatara have, however, survived 200 million years, so may have mechanisms to cope with climate change, though it is feared that the climate change of the future may occur at a faster rate than tuatara can adapt, physiologically or behaviourally (9).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
It is listed on CITES Appendix I.
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Conservation

Brothers Island tuatara is one of the oldest animals in existence and is heavily protected under the Wildlife Act in New Zealand. The island it occurs on is designated as a Wildlife Sanctuary and as a Flora and Fauna Reserve, and permits are required for visits (2). Every precaution is taken to prevent rodents gaining access to this island and threatening the populations, although this cannot be guaranteed (2). New Zealand's Wildlife Service has been running a long-term research programme on the ecology of the two tuatara species and factors affecting their survival, in order to best decide on conservation measures (7). While these measures are considered adequate, there are concerns that any threat could have significant impacts on this species due to its incredibly slow reproductive rate and poor adaptability. As a precaution, in 1995, 68 Brothers Island tuataras were introduced to Titi Island in Cook Strait (8). Following this success another 54 individuals were introduced to Matui island, where tourists are able to view them and learn more about the need to protect this rare species (8). In 2001 a recovery plan was published for the tuatara which focuses on developing current initiatives and monitoring the gene pools of each population (8). Conservation and continued research is essential to ensure that we do not lose the oldest living reptile in the world (2).
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