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What Does A Tuatara Eat?

You just found out about the tuatara, and now you want to know more! As it turns out, there’s much more to this cute reptile than meets the eye–for example, it’s the only animal in the world that has a third eye on top of its head. A tuatara’s eating habits are also fascinating, and you would be amazed at how long it can go without eating! So, what does a tuatara eat? How does it hunt? Does it have teeth? And just how long can it go without food? Keep reading! In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions.

What is Tuatara’s Favorite Food?

What is Tuatara's Favorite Food

The adorable, lizard-like tuatara, native to New Zealand, is a carnivore. It eats many different kinds of meat-based foods, though there are some it seems to prefer more than others.

According to the San Diego Zoo, the tuatara eats mostly insects. This unique creature is nocturnal, so most of the insects it eats are also active at night.

Of all insects, tuatara seem to prefer beetles of all kinds. They will also eat spiders, crickets, worms, cicadas, and many other types of insects depending on what is available.

Insects are their most common food choice–their “favorite” food–but they will occasionally eat other things as well. For this reason, they can be seen as opportunistic carnivores.

Other foods tuatara will eat include:

  • Small lizards: Tuatara are not lizards themselves, despite their close resemblance, but they will sometimes eat small lizards that pass too close to them. This is true if they are especially hungry and cannot find enough insects to satisfy them, or if they simply want to take advantage of an easy feast crawling past.
  • Birds: Sometimes, tuatara eat birds as well. They often live in the burrows of the ground-dwelling fairy prion and will frequently eat the chicks of this bird, especially when other food is scarce.
  • Eggs: Tuatara will occasionally eat the eggs of lizards and birds. They most frequently eat the eggs of the fairy prion since they are easy to find in the burrows the tuatara share with the birds.
  • Juvenile tutara: Adult tuatara occasionally turn cannibal, preying on the younger members of their own species. For this reason, juvenile tuatara are most active during daytime hours instead of at night, as they are attempting to avoid becoming food for their elders (as well as other nocturnal predators).

How Do Tuatara Hunt?

How Do Tuatara Hunt

Tuatara are not very aggressive hunters. Their hunting style is somewhat similar to that of the chameleon–slow and steady until the moment it’s time to spring into action.

Whereas chameleons use their tongues to catch prey, tuatara use their entire mouths. They will sit and wait in areas with lots of insects, watching for the bugs to move past them, then will lunge forward with impressive speed and capture the insects in their mouth.

As noted above, tuatara frequently cohabitate with certain types of birds such as the fairy prion. These birds create and live in burrows which tuatara often move into (though sometimes they build their own burrows nearby).

The birds provide more than shelter and a potential secondary food choice for the tuatara. The excrement from the fairy prions attracts a huge number of arthropods, which in turn supply an easy and abundant primary food source for the tuataras. 

By cohabitating with the birds, the tuatara never have to travel far to find food.

Again, their ability to sit perfectly still, then snap forward and snatch insects in their mouth, is their greatest strength when hunting.

Do Tuatara Have Teeth?

Upon first glance, you may think that tuatara are toothless. Their teeth are not immediately visible when they open their mouths because the teeth are located farther back in the jaw, and they are fairly small.

Don’t let that fool you though. 

Tuatara actually have three rows of sharp teeth–two rows on top and one on the bottom. The bottom row fits comfortably in between the two top rows, closing together like scissors to tear apart insect exoskeletons. 

Unlike some other reptiles, tuataras can’t regrow their teeth. The teeth are extensions of their jaw bones and, once they wear down and fall out, they’re gone for good.

A tuatara’s teeth wear down over time, becoming dull and blunt with age. For this reason, older tuatara generally eat softer insects that are easier for them to chew.

Check out this short video of a tuatara eating a cicada.

How Long Can Tuatara Go Without Food?

Reptiles are known for being able to fast for extended periods during brumation or food shortages. But given their small size, the tuatara’s fasting ability is particularly impressive.

So, just how long can they go without food? Up to 12 months.

Tuatara have slow metabolisms to begin with; this keeps their body temperatures low and limits the amount of food they need on a regular basis. But during periods of hunger or brumation, these impressive little animals can slow their metabolism even further so they don’t need to eat at all. 

Tuatara brumate, or hibernate, in winter, so they regularly go for as much as a few months without food during this period. But, if necessary, they can maintain this state of low metabolism for up to a year.

This ability may well be a part of what has allowed tuatara to survive for 190 million years. They can withstand not only food shortages but also extremely cold temperatures by the same process of slowing their metabolism (and breathing).

Conclusion

Tuatara eat mostly insects, but they will also eat lizards, birds, eggs, and even younger members of their own species. They have three rows of teeth in their mouth that allow them to cut through sharp exoskeletons and crunch through bone.

Tuatara are able to slow their metabolism during times of cold weather and food shortage. This allows them to survive extremely low temperatures and go up to 12 months without eating. 

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