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Tuatara Lizard Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name:Tuatara
Scientific Name:Sphenodon punctatus punctatus
Life Span:35-100 years
Size:
61 cm (24 in) Male45 cm (18 in) Female
Habitat:Coastal forest with areas that have crumbly soil
Country of Origin:New Zealand
OrderRhynchocephalia
FamilySphenodontidae
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Physical Description

This reptile is considered as part of the unique descendant of the order Rhynchocephalia. The name Tuatara is obtained from the Māori language that means “peaks on the back.” It may look like an ordinary reptile like that of lizard, but it is considered as an unusual creature. It exhibits the color greenish-brown and grey that can change over time 

It has a spiny crest on its back part, especially the males. Its two rows teeth where the upper jaw overlaps the lower jaw is a unique piece for tearing and chewing of food. One thing that makes this species special is its photoreceptive eye or known as a third eye that sets the circadian and seasonal cycles. Tuatara is known as a living fossil because it’s the only surviving species on their group.

Tuataras have a robust lizard-like body with a large head and well-developed limbs and teeth that are placed permanently into the jaw. Their snout is unique because of the presence of its toothless premaxillary bones that causes a beak-like appearance. Their entire body is covered in hard scales. Both sexes possess a series of broad spines that are derived from scales, which extend down the midline of the back from the nape onto the tail. The largest spines are seen on the neck and trunk.

Species of Tuatara

There are only two living species of Tuatara: Sphenodon punctatus or known as Northern Tuatara and the Sphenodon guntheri or known as Brothers Island tuatara. 

Sphenodon punctatus (Northern Tuatara)

The term Punctatus is derived from the Latin word for “spotted.” This species has an olive-green color with shades of grey to dark pink or brick red, often mottled, and always with white spots. It has been protected by law since 1895

Sphenodon Gunther (Brothers Island Tuatara)

The term Gunther refers to the German-born British herpetologist Albert Günther that did researches about Tuataras. This species has olive-brown skin with yellowish patches. It has been classified as extinct since 2009.

Size and Weight

Both genders of Tuatara are considered as sexually dimorphic. The adult-adult tends to be larger than measures 61 cm (24 in) in length compared to an adult female that measures 45 cm (18 in). The weight of a male Tuatara may reach up to 1 kg (2.2 lb) while the maximum weight of a female Tuatara is around 660 g (1.3 lb).

Habitat

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Tuatara is reptiles are regularly found in New Zealand. They are usually seen in the coastal forest with areas that have crumbly soil where they can burrow. Mammals that loves to make tunnels or holes, such as seabirds, prions, and petrels share the island habitat of Tuatara during their nesting season. The Tuatara uses the nesting burrows of birds as a shelter if available. 

They were once introduced to nearby places in New Zealand, but they were led to extinction because of mammals and human beings. Now there is already a stable number in their population, but the community is still finding ways on how to remove this species in extinction, especially now that the globe is confronted with global warming.

Adaptation

They exist in the coldest conditions on a remote island. They are exothermic that are active at low temperature. The normal temperature for them is at 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Once in a while, they also need basking to generate heat on their bodies and to possibly get rid of some skin diseases.

They are unusual reptiles because they are unlike other reptiles that hate cool weather. They do not have the ability to survive well over 25 degrees centigrade but can live below 5 degrees, by sheltering in burrows. They move slowly, which is why they have a heartbeat that is slower than other reptiles. In order to communicate, they make use of body language and croaking noises.

Reproduction

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They have a slow juvenescence that would usually take up to 20 years. There is a high possibility of reproduction when the mating takes place during the summer season where they sit outside females’ burrow and wait until they are in the mood to mate. They would fan out the larger crest of their spines around the neck of the female in hopes to impress them. Male Tuatara doesn’t have reproductive organs, that is why reproduction occurs by the pair rubbing their cloaca’s together.

Males have the capability to reproduce every year, while females can only breed every two to five years. The sperm can be stored by the female Tuatara for at least 10 to 12 months that may lay 1 to 19 white, soft-shelled eggs. These eggs will incubate in a covered burrow for more or less 15 months before all the egg cracks, this is considered as the longest incubation period of a reptile. Since it would take long before these eggs hatch, there’s a possibility that predators such as rats get the tuatara eggs for food since the mother won’t stay to protect it.

Determining Tuatara’s Age

There are two ways in determining Tuataras age using a microscopic inspection, it is through hematoxylin biophilic rings and femoral rings. When hematoxylin biophilic rings are formed under the microscope, the age of the Tuatara ranges between 12–14 years of age. If the femoral rings were seen, the age of Tuatara might range between 25–35 years of age. 

Since the age of Tuataras is longer than 35 years, experts are still looking for possible ways on how they can get the age bracket for 35 years old and above. One possible way that they are looking into is the examination of tooth wear and tear.

Determining the Tuatara’s Gender

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The temperature plays an important role in determining what’s the gender of a Tuatara. A change in the temperature even a slight difference of just one-degree centigrade can change all-female eggs into all males. Higher temperature tends to create more males that is why there are a lot of concerns about global warming because it may affect the survival rate of Tuatara. 

Eggs that had been incubated at 21 °C (70 °F) have an equal chance of getting both male and female genders, or it may be all male or all female offspring. However, at 22 °C (72 °F), there is 80% chance that the eggs are likely to be males, and at 20 °C (68 °F), 80% are likely to be females; at 18 °C (64 °F) expect that all hatchlings will be females.

Life Span

Among the reptiles, Tuatara has the slowest growth rates. They still continue to grow at the age of 35 with an average lifespan of about 60 years. With an optimum condition, they can live p until 100 years. There is a report that a 111-year old Tuatara male has successfully reproduced for the first time with an 80-year-old female. Experts believe that Tuatara may live up to 200 years old in captivity.

Behavior

Tuatara is considered as both terrestrial and nocturnal reptiles. They often need to bask under the sun to keep their bodies warm so that when the night comes, their body has enough heat to withstand the coldness outside. Tuatara of both sexes would greatly defend their territories, intruders will be threatened, and they will eventually bite when they go near them. If this happens, be cautious because they don’t let go easily causing the skin of their prey and breeders wounded or ruptured.

Diet

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Their diet consists of lizards, frogs, insects, chicks, bird’s eggs, and sometimes they tend to become herbivore eating some green leafy plants. The Tuatara will not attempt to eat in total darkness. The seasonally available food for them, such as the eggs and young of seabirds provides beneficial fatty acids that will help in giving energy in times when there is a scarcity of food. In captivity, they can eat all kinds of meat from different animals and are usually frozen goods.

Tuatara’s Eggs

The eggs of Tuatara has a soft, thick shell that has an embedded calcite crystal in the matrix of fibrous layers. The females would take up to 1-3 years to provide eggs with the yolk, and it takes up to 7 months to form the shell. A total of 11-15 months to hatching period. This is quite a long process for reptiles.

Shedding

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Since Tuatara is reptiles, it is expected that they will go through shedding. Younger Tuatara frequently shed as a response to their bodies growing while adults may only shed once or twice every year. Before they shed, you will observe that their color becomes duller, with their eyes being puffed out more than normal. 

These are signs of an expected healthy shedding. During this period of time that they will shed, it is important for them to stay hydrated and clean. To keep them hydrated, they would usually dip themselves in swamps or in fresh bodies of water. In captivity, you can create a well hydrated and moist environment by making sure that there is a basin of water where they wet their bodies and also you can spray the insides of their tank with water.

 Anatomy of Tuatara’s Body Parts

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Head

The Tuatara’s skull has two side openings which are called the temporal fenestra that has complete arches. Its upper jaw is firmly attached to the skull that makes it a rigid and inflexible construction. The tip of its jaw is a beak-like that leads you to the opening of the mouth where you can see a double row of teeth in the upper jaw that perfectly fits the single row of teeth in the lower jaw in between the upper teeth. The brain only occupies half the volume of its endocranium. Experts would usually compare their brains like that of dinosaurs.

Sensory organs

Its eyes specialized in three types of photoreceptor cells which are used for both night and day vision and the tapetum lucidum that can be seen into the retina to enhance the night vision. The third eye of Tuatara is called the parietal eye and is located on top of its head. Its third eye is unknown, but it is said that it helps in absorbing ultraviolet rays that help absorb vitamin D and it helps with thermoregulation.

Tuatara has the most primitive hearing organs among the amniotes like that of a turtle. They do not have earhole nor eardrums, and its middle ear cavity is filled with adipose tissue. Even though the hearing organs are poorly developed, it still has a frequency response from 100 to 800 Hz that has a peak sensitivity of 40 dB at 200 Hz

Spine and ribs

The spine and ribs of Tuatara can be compared with the condition of fish vertebrae and some amphibians that are made up of hourglass-shaped amphicoelous vertebrae that are concave both before and behind. It also has rib-like bones that are called gastric or abdominal ribs that are made of cartilage that is attached to the spine or thoracic ribs. It has well-developed gastralia and uncinate processes that protect the belly and helps to hold the guts and inner organs.

Tail and back

The tail and the spiny plates on the back of the Tuatara resemble those of a crocodile, but it gets the behavior of the lizard that had the ability to break off its tail when caught by a predator, and then regenerate it. The regrowth of its tail takes a long time.

Common Tuatara’s Disease

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Infectious disease

Salmonellosis 

This disease can easily be acquired to someone who has salmonellosis. If not treated properly, the Tuatara may die because of different complications in the organs.

Infectious stomatitis

This is commonly known as mouth rot. Fungi development is usually the main factor why this disease is acquired. The secondary factors are husbandry or management problems, overcrowding, poor nutrition, and low ambient temperatures. If left not treated, it may lead to loss of appetite and starvation will cause death.

Black Spot

This is a skin disease endemic during the winter season. This is characterized by blackening of the scales. If the discoloration spreads throughout the body of the Tuatara, it may cause anorexia, depression, and dehydration. Their normal sloughing will be disrupted that will make then weak leading to death. This disease may also occur due to overcrowding, cold temperature, and stress. 

Other mycotic infections

These mycotic infections are caused by a fungal infection of the skin that transports through the lungs, blood vessels, and viscera. Cold temperatures and high humidity are the reason for having the development of this overwhelming fungal infections. The affected Tuatara may feel wasting, dehydration, skin discoloration, and anorexia. 

Reproductive Disease

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Fetal mummification

This is the shrinkage of the fetus because the fluid of both fetus and uterus will be absorbed. The cause of death of the fetus is due to the autolytic changes and the involution of maternal caruncles.

Dystocia

This is caused by different husbandry problems such as improper temperature, malnutrition, improper nesting site, and dehydration. This is characterized by the difficulty in laying eggs.

Osteodystrophy

It is where the Tuatara develops a spinal lump in

the lumbar region, with associated paresis/paralysis affecting the tail and hind legs. It is caused by a calcium-phosphorus imbalance especially to those who have a vitamin D3 deficiency.

Gout

Reptiles also experience gout, which is articular and visceral. Theories claim that it is caused by inappropriate dietary protein levels and dehydration.

Cachexia

This is characterized as the difficulty of eating that may result in long-term starvation. Inappropriate foods or feeding management, and diseases that affect appetite and metabolism are the known causes.

Parasitic diseases

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Mites

There are three types of mites that may infest Tuatara, these are the Ophionyssus scincorum, Neotrombicula sphenodontia and the Acomatocarus lysosomal. These are visible in color red or orange spots that are usually clustered around the ears, groin, axilla or cloaca. They suck blood leading to skin damage or death.

Nematodes

Clinical signs such as regurgitation, bloatedness, anorexia, anemia, signs of obstruction, and

wasting may be experienced.

Protozoa

This disease is usually found in a 40-plus-year-old captive tuatara. This results in granulomatous inflammation in different parts of the body.

Miscellaneous Diseases

Dysecdysis

Shedding of skin is important to them 

 If the Tuatara experiences this disease there is an improper skin shedding that is caused by old injuries, malnutrition, dry environment and external parasitism, or dermatitis.

Heat stress 

Tuatara is a cold-blooded reptile, of exposure to too much heat it may lead to different irritabilities that may cause fights between animals. Heat stress also triggers the formation of other disabilities in their body.

Preventing Diseases

Just like humans, Tuatara is also exposed to different kinds of health issues, not just the ones mentioned above because some are not yet studied but already prevailing. To prevent illness, it is recommended to observe the best husbandry practices that can be done in order to help in preventing possible undesirable conditions that may lead to worst scenarios.

It is also advisable to provide your Tuatara with nutritious food items and make sure to add calcium, as well as multivitamin supplements at every feeding. If taken in captivity, there is a high possibility that their immunity to different environmental factors is decreased.

Availability – Where to Get One?

Tuatara is not yet considered endangered but they are already at risk. You can see these kinds of reptiles from a collector of ancient species but usually, are not for sale. There are pet shops on the internet where you could find this species at different prices.

Threats to survival

Like other native reptiles and amphibians that are nearly zero out by extinction, the major threat to the survival of Tuatara is harmed by mammalian predators. Rats are a particular threat, and the majority of the remaining Tuatara now only survive and breed on offshore and mainland islands that are rat-free.

Tuatara is also threatened by humans that capture them to sell overseas and for that personal captivation. Owning Tuatara these days is illegal, even though they are highly sought after by reptile collectors and may fetch very high prices overseas. There are reports that they are being stolen from zoos and offshore islands.

4 Main Conservation Strategies for Tuatara

  • Mammal eradications from offshore islands such as rats.
  • Egg incubation programs. This process is where the eggs are collected from the wild and being incubated in controlled laboratory environments.
  • Head start programs. It is where a young Tuatara is hatched in the laboratory and is kept in special facilities before they are released onto offshore islands when they reach maturity.
  • Translocation. It is when a large number of Tuatara are transported to a new place to establish a new population or to help restore the existing population.

Captive Breeding

Whether you prepare a cage, tank or terrarium, the habitat of your Tuatara will serve as its shelter for the next few years so it is expected to build a home for them that mimics their actual habitat in the wild. The size of the tank is not a problem as long as your Tuatara can freely move around.

In selecting a cage, make sure that it is equipped with a lid because Tuataras are considered as an escape artist. Make sure that the tank allows proper air circulation to avoid humidity problems and suffocation that is why considering using a screen lid cover is also helpful.

Lighting and Humidity

The lighting helps in keeping the surroundings of the cage clean and bright so that you can easily check up on your pet. They originated in Newzealand where the sun doesn’t usually come out so it doesn’t matter if your lighting has a full spectrum or not.

Once in a while, your pet needs basking so situate the lighting equipment in a place where the light can penetrate freely and There should also be a way for your dragon to come near the light source within 6 to 8 inches.

Temperature

Tuatara came from a cold environment. For you to be able to mimic an ideal environment for them, make sure to maintain a temperature of about 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure that the lighting equipment that you will be using does not create so much heat so as not to cause heat stress to your pet.

Tank Bedding and Accessories

Aside from taking care of the lighting and temperature inside the cage or tank, it is also important to pay attention to the flooring of the tank. The kind of flooring that is recommended depends on the actual age of your pet. Since younger ones need to feed on more insects compared to older dragons, it is important to be more careful regarding the flooring since it could be possible that a younger bearded dragon will also eat a bit of it while trying to catch their prey.

Sanitation

For hygiene and sanitation, make sure that you regularly clean the cage, water bowl, and food bowl using a sanitation product specially formulated for this reason. Make sure to clean all items after cleaning, allowing them to dry before setting up the cage again. Also, since Tuatara can carry salmonella bacteria, it is recommended to wash your hands after handling it or carrying its cage. 

Natural Environment – Substrate

There are a variety of substrates that you can use. 3 to have a small bowl or one that they could not possibly lay in, as this may result in concerns such as a scale rot. If you do not use a water bowl, it is recommended to provide a different source for hydration. It should also be noted that Tuataras get almost 90% of their needs in hydration from the greens that they consume, aside from fully-hydrated food.

Steps in Setting up the Tank for Tuatara

Step 1: Tuatara can be aggressive so decide what kind of animals you would also want to live together with them. But it is more advisable not to put them together with other animals. You can get a pair of Tuatara but make sure that the tank is spacious enough where they can freely move.

Step 2: Find a tank that can be comfortable for your pet. It is better to buy a tank that could be used until its future growth. It is also advisable to mimic the natural habitat of Tuatara where there are crumbly soil, logs, and burrows.

Step 3: Once you already have an ideal tank, add a substrate. Tuatara loves to burrow themselves that is why it is important to make sure that your substrate is enough. High-quality sand or soil that can be used is available in some pet shops.

Step 4: Exposure to light or basking is important. There should be an area where your pet could lie completely under a heat lamp or natural sunlight. Basking is necessary for the health of your Tuatara, make sure the basking area is inviting because if your pet will not bask it may lead to some infections or diseases infestations.

Step 5: Add plants just enough to oxygenate the tank. The number of plants to be used depends on the size of tank but make sure that it won’t occupy a large space because there’s a tendency that your pet will burrow itself and destroy the plants. Your pet might dig up the plants so making use of soft rocks to prevent it from uprooting.

Step 6: It is a must to clean the whole tank at least every 2-4 weeks depending on the size of the tank. While cleaning the tank, place the Tuatara in a tub with a screen so that it won’t escape. The sand or soil substrate must also be changed completely.

Facts about Tuatara

1. The Tuatara is a member of the order Rhynchocephalia that is believed to have flourished around 200 million years ago. They look like lizards but they are more unique.

2. The reason why the spines of male Tuatara are more prominent is that it is the one that they use or raise during territorial or courtship displays.

3. Tuataras are long-lived and one of the reasons for their longevity is their slow metabolism due to their low body temperature. They can also tolerate much lower temperatures and they hibernate during winter.

4. Its third eyes are only visible in hatchlings as it is already covered with scales and pigments after four to six months. 

5. As part of their adaptation to the environment. Tuatara has the ability to break off its tail and regenerates it again especially when they are caught by their predator.

6. The arrangement of their teeth can’t be seen in other reptiles. Their teeth are not separate structures but sharp projections of the jaw bone once their teeth fall off, it can no longer be replaced that is why older Tuatara would prefer to eat soft foods such as worms, beetles and other softer insects.

7. Tuataras are the only ones who reproduce slowly. Males have the ability to mate almost every year, but females can only breed once with an interval of two or five years. It takes the females between 1 top 3 years to provide eggs with yolk, and up to seven months to form the shell. Then it takes an additional 12 to 15 months from copulation to hatching, possibly the longest incubation rate of any reptile.

8. They’re diurnal during their earlier stage and nocturnal as adults. They prefer to stay active during the day, especially the hatchlings to avoid the adult tuataras or some predators that feed on them.

9. They have the ability to dig their own burrows and to cohabitate with birds. Tuataras will sometimes feed on the eggs, hatchlings or smaller animals who cohabitate with them.

10. Tuataras’ worst invaders are the rats and mice because they love to eat Tuataras eggs and hatchlings. This is one of the reasons why these species were extinct way back in 2005 but the government finds a way on how to rebound their population.

FAQ’s

Can you keep Tuatara as pets?

If you were to keep them healthy in captivity, you’d have to mimic those conditions, but as of the moment, captive breeding is already prohibited by law because they are strictly protected.

What differs Tuataras to lizards?

The easiest way for you to distinguish them is through their ears, Lizards have ears while Tuatara doesn’t. Tuatara also enjoys low temperatures especially the cool weather at night, while lizards like a warm environment. The most unique or distinguish the part of their body is their “third eye” on the top of the head. The “eye” has a retina, lens, and nerve endings, but its purpose is not for seeing but for defense mechanisms.

Why is Tuatara endangered?

The tuatara has been classified as an endangered species since 1895 and until now their population is rebounding. Tuatara, like many native New Zealand animals, were threatened by habitat loss, harvesting, and introduced species such as rats and mustelids.

Which extinct dinosaur family is the tuatara related to?

Most species of dinosaur family went about 60 million years ago except for the Tuatara tribe. Tuatara is the only surviving members of the order Sphenodontia, which was a representation of other dinosaur species way back 200 million years ago.  

How old is the oldest Tuatara?

There have been traces of tuatara fossils found in rocks of Jurassic age about 150+ million years ago. Fossil evidence indicates that the other members of the family Rhynchocephalia have been extinct for the past 60 million years.

Why is it called the fastest evolving species?

Scientists made an evaluation that pinned down the fastest-known evolving animal which is a “living dinosaur” called a tuatara. The tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus, resembles a lizard and is only found in New Zealand.

Is it possible to potty train a Tuatara?

Yes, it is possible to potty train a Tuatara. They can be trained to defecate consistently in a certain area of the average-sized cage.

Are Tuataras smelly?

Yes, they can be smelly especially if you do not take care of them properly. As such, make sure to give focus on its hygiene, using sanitary practices when handling it. Neglecting to clean the habitat of your pet will also make your pet smelly and prone to viral and bacterial infections. 

Can you feed Tuatara with feeds?

If the Tuatara is experiencing nutrient deficiencies, it is advisable to feed it with feeds or supplements enriched with vitamins and minerals.

Where do Tuataras live in New Zealand?

Tuatara habitats are now found on around 35 islands. Seven of these islands are in Cook Strait and are home to an estimated 45,500 animals.

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