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Tuataras – The Living Fossils

tuatara-reptile image
Tuataras are reptiles, but they aren’t lizards.

Tuataras are reptiles, but they aren’t lizards. Their closest relatives died out during the time of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. Tuataras are sometimes called living fossils because their family is so old.

Tuataras Facts for Kids

  • Tuataras look like lizards.
  • They’re from New Zealand.
  • They can live for over 100 years.
  • Cold-blooded with a third eye.
  • They like cool weather.
  • Nocturnal and eat insects.
  • They have spiky back crests.
  • Hatchlings have a yolk sac.
  • Can hold their breath for an hour.
  • Their teeth are not replaceable.

New Zealand wildlife

Tuataras, unique and ancient reptiles often labeled as living fossils, are a distinctive and fascinating part of New Zealand’s wildlife, captivating locals and tourists alike with their characteristic spiky exterior and third ‘eye’ on their head.

The cooler temperatures of New Zealand, a stark contrast to the typical habitats of most reptiles, serve as the exclusive home to these nocturnal and carnivorous creatures that survive on a diet of insects, spiders, and small animals and can live for over a century.

However, their slow reproduction rate, coupled with the threat from predators, has classified them as an endangered species, underlining the significance of local conservation efforts for their continued survival and preservation of New Zealand’s unique natural heritage.


Native to New Zealand, the captivating tuataras, often referred to as living fossils due to their ancient lineage, have existed for over 200 million years— a timeline that astonishingly dates back to the era of the dinosaurs. Uniqueness is a key feature in these reptiles, as unlike their counterparts, they possess a third ‘eye’ on the top of their heads.

However, this ‘eye’ doesn’t function for vision but as a light sensor to regulate their body temperature and activity levels. As the sole surviving members of the Rhynchocephalia order, which thrived around 200 million years ago, tuataras stand as a testament to a bygone era.

Their slow metabolic rate contributes to their longevity, with lifespans reaching up to 100 years, asserting them as one of the most long-lived reptiles on our planet.

Ancient species

Tuataras, often dubbed as ‘living fossils’, are intriguing creatures with an extensive history tracing back to antiquity. They are among the oldest species on Earth, their lineage originating from around 200 million years ago during the dinosaur epoch, which establishes them as some of the last enduring members of the reptilian group that coexisted with prehistoric dinosaurs.

Interestingly, unlike several ancient species that have undergone substantial evolution over millions of years, tuataras have sustained striking resemblances to their early forebears. This unique continuity offers researchers invaluable glimpses into the realm of primitive wildlife.

The tuataras’ characteristics, adaptations, and lifestyle collectively present a living representation of what existence might have been during the dinosaur era.

Sphenodontidae family

Belonging to the ancient Sphenodontidae family, which dates back to about 230 million years ago – even predating dinosaurs, Tuataras are fascinating creatures that carry significant importance for scientists studying evolution.

As the only surviving members of this family, these endemic reptiles of New Zealand provide a living link to our planet’s distant past. Intriguingly, they possess a slow metabolic rate, allowing them to live up to a century while also growing at an unhurried pace. One of the most notable characteristics of these remarkable creatures is their third eye.

This eye, located atop their head, is clearly visible in hatchlings but gradually becomes obscured by scales and pigments within a few months, rendering it difficult to see in older tuataras.


Originating from the ancient order Rhynchocephalia that thrived approximately 200 million years ago, Tuataras are truly intriguing and unique reptiles, often referred to as ‘living fossils’ due to being the only surviving members of this order.

Native exclusively to New Zealand, they possess a variety of distinctive traits, such as a ‘third eye’ visible only in younger specimens, an unusual dental structure with two rows of teeth on the upper jaw overlapping a single row on the lower, and an impressive lifespan of over 100 years.

Contrary to most reptiles, Tuataras are more inclined towards cooler climates and exhibit nocturnal, slow-growing characteristics, often requiring up to two decades to fully mature. Their exceptional biological and physiological attributes are pivotal in the scientific exploration of reptilian evolution.

Third eye (parietal eye)

Did you realize that tuataras, a unique reptile species native to New Zealand, possess an intriguing attribute referred to as a ‘third eye’ or parietal eye? Unlike the conventional eyes we are familiar with, this extraordinary feature does not contribute to normal vision.

Situated on the crown of the tuatara’s head, this third eye is furnished with a retina, lens, and nerve endings, albeit concealed by scales and skin. This anatomical anomaly is postulated by scientists to facilitate the absorption of ultraviolet rays, thus playing a pivotal role in regulating the tuatara’s body temperature and sleep cycles.

What makes this feature even more fascinating is the tuatara’s status as the sole surviving species of an order that thrived 200 million years ago, increasing the marvel of this third eye characteristic! Isn’t that simply astounding?

Island habitats

Tuataras, the only surviving members of an ancient group of reptiles that existed alongside dinosaurs, are intriguing creatures that inhabit the islands of New Zealand. The isolation of these islands provides an ideal sanctuary for them, shielding them from a multitude of predators.

They typically reside in burrows or rocky crevices, which provide safety and a cool climate, aligning with their preference for lower temperatures. The abundant supply of insects, birds, and eggs on these islands caters to their dietary needs.

Remarkably, tuataras have a slow growth rate and are renowned for their longevity, with a lifespan exceeding 100 years, making them one of the most enduring vertebrates on earth.

Conservation efforts

Conservation of the tuatara, a unique reptile species with a lineage tracing back to the dinosaur era, has become a pressing concern in New Zealand due to the species’ susceptibility to predators and habitat loss. Recognizing their vulnerability, the New Zealand government has enacted legal protections for these remarkable creatures.

Conservationists are laboring relentlessly to safeguard their natural habitats, creating predator-free zones as a key component of their survival strategy. Complementing these efforts are specialized breeding programs aimed at boosting their population.

Furthermore, educational initiatives are being implemented to inculcate in the younger generation the significance of conserving this primeval species. Through this comprehensive approach combining law-based protection, habitat preservation, breeding programs, and education, there is a hopeful vision for a more secure future for the tuataras.

Cold-blooded animals

Tuataras, intriguing cold-blooded creatures indigenous to New Zealand, captivate young reptile enthusiasts with their unique characteristics. These creatures, akin to snakes and lizards, are ectothermic, deriving their body heat from their surroundings, which makes them significantly more active during cooler nights.

In the harsh winter months, they are known to hibernate due to exceedingly low temperatures. Remarkably, tuataras exhibit a high tolerance for colder climates uncommon to most reptiles, staying active in temperatures plunging as low as 5 degrees Celsius. This adaptability enables their survival across diverse habitats, ranging from forests to coastal regions.

Endangered species

Native to New Zealand, the unique and endangered tuataras have withstood the test of time for over 200 million years, earning them the moniker of ‘living fossils.’ Despite their symbolic representation of survival and longevity, even outliving the dinosaurs, these remarkable reptiles face significant threats, such as habitat loss, predation by introduced species, and the adversities of climate change.

The slow growth and low reproduction rates of tuataras exacerbate these threats, making recovery from population declines an arduous task. Nevertheless, efforts are underway to safeguard their existence through various measures like habitat restoration and predator control programs, thus bolstering their chances of survival.

Tuatara Reptile Image - Science for Kids All About Tuataras
Tuataras are reptiles, but they aren’t lizards.

Tuataras, unlike lizards, like cool weather. They’re also nocturnal. They live in only one place on the planet – 30 small islands off the coast of New Zealand. Here, they are protected by the New Zealand government.

Buried Tuatara Eggs Image
All About Tuataras: It takes up to 9 months for a mother tuatara to lay her eggs. She places them in a burrow, where they incubate for another 13 months before they hatch.

Fun Facts about Tuataras for Kids

  • Tuataras live a long time. They don’t grow up until they’re 15 to 20 years old – sort of like people. They can live for up to 100 years.
  • Tuataras only have babies every 2 to 5 years. It takes up to 9 months for a mother tuatara to lay her eggs. She places them in a burrow, where they incubate for another 13 months before they hatch. During cold weather, the eggs stop growing until warm weather returns. Most lizard eggs hatch within a few weeks.
  • Tuataras eat mostly insects. Sometimes they eat birds, eggs or small lizards. Their teeth wear down as they get old. Old tuataras have to eat soft food, just like many old people.
  • Tuataras sometimes share a burrow with a sea bird. The bird goes out during the day and the tuatara goes out at night.
  • Baby tuataras are active during the day so the adults don’t eat them at night.
Tuatara Eating a Bird Image
Tuataras eat mostly insects. Sometimes they eat birds, eggs or small lizards.

Tuatara Vocabulary

  1. Relative: member of the family
  2. Fossil: remains of ancient animals and plants
  3. Burrow: hole in the ground
  4. Incubate: develop
  5. Nocturnal: awake at night

Learn More All About Tuataras

Watch this fun documentary video to know more  about the Tuataras:

A documentary video of facts about the tuataras.

Tuatara Q&A

Question: Are tuataras endangered?

Answer: Yes, tuataras now live on islands that are free of rats and other predators to help their numbers grow.


Question: Are most new babies male or female?

Answer: Warm weather while the eggs are incubating makes male babies. Cooler weather makes girl babies. If the world keeps getting warmer, all the babies will be boys.