Tuatara tales from SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s

Department of Conservation —  29/08/2020

If you’ve been to SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s recently, you may have noticed something resembling a fish out of water. The tuatara enclosure – after the penguins, before the turtles – houses four young tuatara, complete with beautiful native plants, special lighting and plenty of food on hand.

Lead aquarist at SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s, Felix Berghoefer, shares with us what he loves about tuatara and his experiences looking after these ancient taonga (treasures).

Lead aquarist Felix Berghoefer.
📷: SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s

We house our tuatara here at SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s to show New Zealander’s and people visiting from overseas what magnificent creatures call Aotearoa home. It’s a perfect opportunity to educate our 380,000 plus annual visitors on the way tuatara live in New Zealand, what threats they face and how we can help support these incredible animals.

Our tuatara are around 7 years old and arrived here in March 2016. The tuatara originate from Takapourewa Island (Stephen’s Island), at the northern end of the South Island. Ngāti Koata are kaitiaki (guardians) of these tuatara. In a special handover ceremony, guardianship was transferred to Auckland iwi Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei to maintain their spiritual and cultural wellbeing. I am privileged to care for the tuatara housed here on a daily basis.

Tuatara enclosure at SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s.
📷: DOC

Tuatara are endemic to New Zealand and are the last surviving species of their order Rhynchocephalia, an order of lizard-like reptiles that traces back to more than 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth. Take a moment to let that sink in! For that reason, they are of huge international interest to biologists, and research published just last week has revealed their genetic secrets, evolutionary position and unique life history.

The tuatara here are believed to be all female, however, they are not quite old enough to be sexed accurately, since their dimorphic (male and female specific) traits have yet to develop completely.

This is because tuatara grow incredibly slowly, growing until they are about 35 years old! They live on average to around 60 years but have been recorded living more than 100 years old and continue to reproduce well into their older years. In fact, they may have the longest incubation rate of any reptile; it takes the female up to seven months to form the shell and an additional 12 to 15 months for the tuatara to hatch.

Unlike other reptiles which usually seek out sun and warmth, tuatara are adapted to cooler climes and do not survive well over 25 degrees centigrade.

Tuatara camouflaged on a rock.
📷: DOC

The name tuatara originates from te reo Maori and translates to “peaks on the back”. This refers to the spiny crests along their backs made from soft, triangular folds of skin. These spines are more prominent in males, who can raise them during territorial or courtship displays.

Through the long period of isolation prior to human settlement, tuatara are uniquely adapted to their environment.

They are experts at blending into their environment with their greenish brown and grey skin, allowing them to sneak up on their prey which includes other reptiles and insects such as beetles, weta, worms, millipedes and spiders, not to mention the occasional seabird egg and chick.

Unlike other reptiles, tuatara teeth don’t replace themselves. This is because they are actually sharp projections of jawbone. Older tuatara with worn-down or broken teeth have to switch from eating hard insects to softer food like earthworms, larvae, and slugs.

Tuatara hatch with a third eye on top of their head which gets covered with skin and becomes invisible as they grow. Ngāti Koata, guardians of the tuatara, believe it enables them to see into the past, present and future – so tuatara are also known as the guardians of knowledge.

Today, tuatara can be found on off-shore Islands around New Zealand as well as the South Island mainland. 

We perform a number of daily tasks to ensure our display is in perfect condition and that it creates an environment that is as close to the tuatara’s natural habitat as possible. This mainly includes cleaning and renewing the enclosures’ water supplies, maintaining the moisture content in air and soil, looking after our native enclosure plants, and managing both our purpose-built burrows, and those dug by the tuatara themselves. And of course, ensuring our tuatara get fed! We feed our tuatara a wide variety of insects and insect larvae, but we’ve noticed that our tuatara get hankerings for crickets.

We are constantly observing the tuatara; checking they are displaying their normal behaviours and are looking healthy and happy.  Our tuatara are young and are still growing; since I started to look after them they have grown significantly in size and weight. Watching them grow and accompanying them through this part of their journey is very rewarding for me.

In my opinion, tuatara are one of the most fascinating animals on this planet and coming in such close contact with them every day is an amazing opportunity. I feel extremely grateful to be able to care for them.

A massive thank you to Ngāti Koata who have been an amazing partner in this relationship between SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, aimed at the optimal wellfare of tuatara.

Tuatara wondering in it’s enclosure.
📷: DOC

About tuatara

Tuatara were once widespread on the mainland of New Zealand.  Sadly, introduced predators like rats, stoats, feral cats and possums have made it too dangerous for them now on the mainland, except in a few predator-free sanctuaries.

However, they live safely on many predator-free islands around New Zealand, including a number of predator-free Islands here, in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.  There are more than 40 predator-free islands in the Marine Park, and many have tuatara living on them.

SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s and Te Papa Atawhai (Department of Conservation)

‘Welcome to Motuihe Island Recreation Reserve – tuatara live here’
📷: DOC

We have a proud history of working with DOC since 1985, working together to achieve our greater conservation goals. We are the only aquarium in New Zealand permitted by the Department to hold, rehabilitate and release sea turtles. Our SEALIFE Trust is a global charity dedicated to conserving aquatic habitats and creating education programmes that champion plastic-free oceans, sustainable fishing and increasing marine protection.

SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s engages in projects with the Department to promote the health and biodiversity of New Zealand’s coasts and oceans. We are very passionate about the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park (1.2m hectares), as it is New Zealand’s only national park of the sea and it right on our doorstep.

We love the new look of the tuatara enclosure which demonstrates our close partnership with DOC.

The Auckland region is currently at Alert Level 3 until 11:59pm on Sunday 30 August, resulting in SEALIFE Kelly Tarlton’s being temporarily closed. In line with the NZ Government move for the Auckland region to shift to Alert Level 2, they will reopen their doors to the public on Monday 31 Aug 2020

Love it, restore it, protect it.