Tuatara: Key Facts

Did you know that a tuatara lays eggs just once every four years? Or that its lifespan may be longer than the average human’s? Keep reading as we discuss these and other tuatara key facts.

Quick Facts About Tuatara

Scientific Name:Sphenodon punctatus
Number of Subspecies:2
Type of Animal:Reptile
Physical Description:Ancient lizard-like reptile, gray to greenish-gray in color and covered with scales. Tuatara have large, dark eyes, short limbs, and long tails. They have a row of white spines along the back, more prominent in males than females. They have five claws on each limb and three rows of sharp teeth in their mouth. They have a third eye on the top of the head, though this is only visible in very young tuatara because it becomes covered in scales as the animal grows.
Distribution:Found only on some of the remote islands of New Zealand.
Habitat:Coastal forests
Average Size:– 20 to 31 inches long
– 1 to 3 pounds
Average Lifespan:60 years; may live up to 120 years.
Number of Young:8 to 15 eggs per brood
Reproductive Cycle:Female lays eggs just once every 4 years or so; eggs take 1 to 3 years to develop a yolk, another 7 months to develop the shell, and several more months before they are ready to be laid.

What is a Tuatara?

A tuatara is a reptile that looks like a lizard but belongs to a completely different family. It is the last remaining species in the order Rhynchocephalia, which was abundant during the time of the dinosaurs before all other species died out around 60 million years ago.

Because its species has been around for so long (190 million years, to be exact), the tuatara is often referred to as a living fossil. 

Tuatara grow very slowly; it takes them 10 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity, and most individuals live an average of 60 to 100 years. Some live even longer, lasting up to 120 years.

Even their reproductive process takes a long time; females lay eggs just once every 4 years, and once the eggs have been laid, they take another year to year and a half before they hatch. 

Tuatara only live on a few scattered islands of New Zealand, though there are a few that live in protected sanctuaries on the mainland and in zoos elsewhere in the world.

They have become endangered largely because of the threat posed by rats and other predators; these predators eat tuatara eggs and young more quickly than their reproductive process can account for such losses.

Check out this video to see what different tuatara at different ages can look like.

What are the Two Most Interesting Facts About Tuatara?

Tuatara are fascinating, unique creatures – two of the most interesting facts about them are:

  • They have unique physical features: Though they look like lizards, they aren’t lizards. They have a much lower average body temperature, and they also boast some physical characteristics they share with no other animal in the world.

The third eye on the top of their head is one such characteristic. It is not used for sight as it is covered with scales, but it can absorb UV radiation and is thought to help the tuatara sense the time of day.

Tuatara also have three rows of teeth that fit together like scissors: the bottom row fits nicely between the two top rows.

  • They can go without food, water, and air: Tuatara may have survived for so long because of their incredible adaptability. Though they are land-dwelling animals, they can hold their breath for up to an hour if they need to hold perfectly still and avoid the notice of predators.

They receive all the water they need from the food they eat, so they don’t have to drink water. During periods of food shortage or extended cold weather, they can slow their metabolism so they don’t have to eat anything–in fact, they can go for up to a year without eating any food!


Tuataras are impressive lizard-like creatures found only in New Zealand. They have several unique physical characteristics and are highly adaptable, but they have become endangered due to rats and other predators eating their eggs and young more quickly than they can reproduce.

Read also about other forest reptiles – here are our guides about alligators, bull snakes, chameleons.

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