(Sphenodon punctatus)




Facts about this animal

The Tuatara is a medium-sized lizard with a large head and no tympanum. The abdomen is proportionally narrow. A typical adult male has a striking nuchal crest, separated from a further crest down the midline of the back and the tail. Both crests bear conspicuous soft spines. With the female, the crests and the spines are not so well developed.

Males reach substantially greater sizes than females, and are generally twice as heavy. The mean snout-vent length of full grown males 265 mm, the weight is 660 to maximum 1000 g. Females are about 214 mm, and 350 to maximum 550 g.

The eyes are large, with a vertical slit pupil, and the iris is dark brown. The pineal eye (i.e. a translucent scale) is very minute; situated beneath a light-coloured scale on the crown of the head. The tail is slightly compressed laterally, about half of the total length and often regenerated (then rather stumpy). The back is covered with small granular scales; belly scales are arranged in transverse rows. The variable body colour is in shades of grey, olive or brackish red. There is a notable colour-change during life. Juvenile are almost uniform brown with a typical triangular chalky-white coloured patch on the top of the head from the nose to across the eyes, and a prominent pattern of white and greyish stripes underneath the head and on the abdomen of the young.

Did you know?
that tuataras are the last surviving members of the order Rhynchocephalia, or beak-heads. These ancient reptiles once flourished as long ago as 225 million years, before dinosaurs. About 70 million years ago they became extinct everywhere except New Zealand.


Name (Scientific) Sphenodon punctatus
Name (English) Tuatara
Name (French) Hatteria ponctué, Sphénodon ponctué
Name (German) Brückenechse
Name (Spanish) Tuátara
Local names Tuatara (Maori)
CITES Status Appendix I
CMS Status Not listed



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Range It lives on about 32 offshore islands of New Zealand, but became extinct on the mainland in the 19th Century.
Habitat Various habitats on the islands where cool climate is found.
Wild population Approx. 55'000 (1994)
Zoo population 133 reported to ISIS (2007). The total ex situ population is larger, however: In 2002, 17 holders in New Zealand and 7 holders overseas had over 800 tuatara. All these figures include both S. punctatus and S. guntheri

In the Zoo



How this animal should be transported

For air transport, Container Note 41 of the IATA Live Animals Regulations should be followed.


Find this animal on ZooLex


Photo Copyright by
Philip C.

Why do zoos keep this animal

Tuataras are kept for educational purposes, being the only extant representative of the order RHYNCHOCEPHALIA. All their relatives died out about 60 million years ago, which is why the tuatara is sometimes called a ‘living fossil’. But keeping and ex-situ breeding of tuataras is also part of a Recovery Plan officially published in 1993 by the Department of Conservation. If tuataras on an offshore island are threatened by introduced rats or other predators or competitors, as many of them as possible may be caught and brought to a zoo, where they are maintained and bred for as long as the exotic animals eradication programme is going on. Once the island is free from introduced species, the tuataras will be brought back.