Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

New Zealand: When isn’t a “lizard” a lizard?

with 33 comments

Tuatara 6409

A “lizard” isn’t a lizard when it’s a tuatara (a Māori term meaning ‘peaks on the back’). According to the relevant Wikipedia article: “Tuatara are reptiles endemic to New Zealand… which, although resembling most lizards, are part of a distinct lineage, the order Rhynchocephalia. The two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of their order, which flourished around 200 million years ago.”

What distinguishes tuatara from reptiles? “Their dentition, in which two rows of teeth in the upper jaw overlap one row on the lower jaw, is unique among living species. They are further unusual in having a pronounced photoreceptive eye, the ‘third eye’, which is thought to be involved in setting circadian and seasonal cycles. They are able to hear, although no external ear is present, and have a number of unique features in their skeleton, some of them apparently evolutionarily retained from fish.”

While the members of Sphenodon punctatus don’t normally adorn themselves with colored beads—that’s in the domain of Homo sapiens and especially Femina sapiens—the one in today’s photograph is so identified as part of the breeding and study program being carried out at the Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington, which I visited on February 21st.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 9, 2015 at 5:10 AM

33 Responses

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  1. Nice beads. Are they normally that color and size? It looks about a foot long.

    Jim in IA

    May 9, 2015 at 6:53 AM

    • When it comes to the tuatara, you could say “my experience” is “limited and underfed,” because I think I saw only this one. Here’s Wikipedia’s description: “Tuatara are greenish brown and gray, and measure up to 80 cm (31 in) from head to tail-tip and weigh up to 1.3 kg (2.9 lb) with a spiny crest along the back, especially pronounced in males.” The species name punctatus means ‘spotted,’ so I assume the conspicuous spots on this tuatara are a common trait.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2015 at 7:08 AM

  2. The beads are a nice touch. Because the “tua” in the name seemed familiar. I went looking, and bumped into a Māori glossary that was fascinating. (Kiri Te Kanawa makes sense, now.)

    I found several of those doubled words in the glossary, which makes me wonder: with that double row of overlapping teeth up top, would the tuatara be considered to have an overoverbite?


    May 9, 2015 at 7:51 AM

    • That’s a good one: overoverbite. It’s also now comment after comment for the beads, or following your lead maybe I should say for the beadsbeads. (And speaking of redundancy—or redundundancy as someone cleverly once wrote—I’m reminded of the way overexaggerated has been creeping into the language.)

      But as for the tuatara, I was sorry I never got to see those double rows of upper teeth. This tuatara never opened its mouth, and even if it had, I doubt the double row would have been visible.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2015 at 9:14 AM

  3. That is fascinating! Now this Femina sapiens will don her beads and face the day 🙂


    May 9, 2015 at 8:42 AM

  4. So cute with his/her piercing 😀


    May 9, 2015 at 9:27 AM

  5. Great photo. Unfortunately the only time I have seen tuataras was in aquarium type boxes with no grass and artificial lighting at Auckland Zoo. So it is nice to see them in natural surroundings

    Raewyn's Photos

    May 9, 2015 at 2:56 PM

    • That’s the nice thing about Zealandia, Tiritiri Matangi, and similar preserves: you can see the species in nature and even get close—assuming the animal will let you, and this one didn’t seem to mind.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2015 at 10:04 PM

  6. Interesante animal y excelente fotografía. Gracias!

  7. Do they use different color combinations to identify individual subjects? That would seem a good plan.
    31″ is a decent size.

    Steve Gingold

    May 9, 2015 at 4:35 PM

    • Yes, the colors and their arrangements do have meanings, but I never saw a chart showing how the system works.

      This tuatara was a lot shorter than 31″, so it was apparently a juvenile.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2015 at 10:07 PM

  8. Fascinating – reminds me a lot of our common basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus) here in Florida. Wonder if they are related?

    Birder's Journey

    May 10, 2015 at 5:58 PM

    • No, they’re not related (except insofar as all things are ultimately related), because the basilisk is a lizard and the tuatara is in a different zoological order from lizards. The fact that the tuatara is the only surviving member of that order does indeed make it fascinating.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 10, 2015 at 9:27 PM

  9. Very interesting, Steve! I had no idea that the tuatara is not a lizard. Fascinating that they have no external ears but can hear, have two rows of upper teeth and a “third eye” as well as a more fishy skeleton. I hope I see one in person one day. I’m very fond of the water dragons we have here.


    May 10, 2015 at 6:13 PM

    • Does your second sentence imply that you’d heard of the tuatara? If so, you were farther along than I was.

      Seeing a tuatara will most likely require that trip to New Zealand you’re planning, unless a zoo in Australia is breeding some. Even in New Zealand they’re scarce, and you’d most likely have to visit a preserve. One place you know you can go is Zealandia in Wellington, where I found this tuatara.

      I had to look up your water dragon, which I’d also never heard of:


      Steve Schwartzman

      May 10, 2015 at 9:35 PM

      • Yes, I had heard of them and seen pictures but had assumed they were lizards. 🙂
        Yes, that’s another reason to add to the list of why I should go to New Zealand. Thanks for the advice about where to see them.
        I’m very fond of my water dragons here and always see a few at Nerima Gardens in Ipswich when I take my work there or have lunch there sometimes. I wrote about the place in my latest blog post (again!) It’s not a major tourist attraction but a nice quiet spot to relax.


        May 11, 2015 at 1:04 AM

        • All the better to have a place that’s not a major tourist attraction and therefore also isn’t as crowded and noisy.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 11, 2015 at 5:12 AM

  10. I never met a reptilian I didn’t like. So far so good.


    May 29, 2015 at 6:59 PM

  11. […] from  New Zealand: When isn’t a “lizard” a lizard?  by Steve […]

  12. Just found a link to your post on Liz’s website. What an amazing, ancient animal.


    June 7, 2019 at 5:36 PM

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