5 Jan 2016
A unique tuatara – a species believed to have pre-dated the dinosaurs – has hatched at Chester Zoo. It’s the world’s first ever breeding of the species outside of their native New Zealand. The rare youngster hatched weighing 4.21 grams following a 238 day incubation period in what reptile experts have described as an “amazing event.”

It is the first ever breeding of tuatara outside of their native New Zealand.

The rare newcomer arrived weighing 4.21 grams following a 238 day incubation period.

Our reptile experts described the hatching as an “amazing event” after dedicating several decades to the project.

Keeper Isolde McGeorge has taken care of the species at Chester Zoo since 1977.

Breeding tuatara is an incredible achievement. They are notoriously difficult to breed and it’s probably fair to say that I know that better than most as it has taken me 38 years to get here. It has taken lots of hard work, lots of stressful moments and lots of tweaking of the conditions in which we keep the animals along the way but it has all been very much worth it.

This animal has been on the planet for over a quarter of a billion years and to be the first zoo to ever breed them outside of their homeland in New Zealand is undoubtedly an amazing event. It’s one of the most momentous events for the reptile team at the zoo since we discovered Komodo dragons are capable of virgin births in 2006.

The new arrival is the offspring of mother Mustard and father Pixie. The duo, along with four other females, was accompanied by a M€ori chief when they ceremoniously arrived in Chester from Wellington Zoo in 1994.

Isolde added:

When you’ve worked with tuatara for as long as I have you come to realise that they don’t do anything in a hurry. Their metabolism is incredibly slow – they take only five breaths and just six to eight heart beats per minute and they only reproduce every four years with their eggs taking a year to hatch.

We’ve waited a very, very long time – 12 years with this particular pairing. The night before it hatched I spotted two beads of sweat on the egg. I had a feeling something incredible was about to happen and so I raced in early the next day and there she was. Immediately I broke down in tears – I was completely overwhelmed by what we had achieved. Now that we have all of the key factors in place, the challenge is to repeat our success and to do it again and again.

Tuataras are ancient reptiles that once flourished as long ago as 225 million years, before dinosaurs existed.

Around 70 million years ago the species became extinct everywhere except New Zealand, where it now has iconic status. The tuatara is steeped in M€ori culture and is highly revered, with the islands on which they live now protected and very few people given permission to visit.

Isolde said:

Tuatara lived before the dinosaurs, they lived with the dinosaurs and they survived after dinosaurs had died out. They really are a living fossil and an evolutionary wonder.

There is no other reptile like it on the planet – the species is very, very different to anything else. They have no external ear openings, they don’t possess normal teeth but instead have projected serrations from their jawbones and they have a ‘third eye’ in the middle of their heads. These ‘eyes’ are equipped with a lens, retina, cornea and connective tissue leading to the brain but in fact have no visual function, instead they’re photoreceptors and are believed to utilise UV light.

Although the tuatara looks very much like a lizard, it actually belongs to a group of animals commonly known as beak heads, or Rhynchocephalia.

The reptile, found wild only in New Zealand, is the last surviving species of its group. Its relatives died out more than 225 million years ago. At that time, the creatures were also found in Europe, Asia, North and South America and parts of Africa and it is not entirely clear how and why the rest of these ancient reptiles became extinct.

Collections Director, Mike Jordan, added:

It has taken years and years of dedication to achieve this world first breeding of the species outside of New Zealand, the only place where they are now found in the wild. The team has shown incredible tenacity, immense persistence and provided constant attention to detail in order to achieve this quite remarkable feat.

The intensive care given and the intricate skills developed along the way are exactly what you need to hone if you’re to save highly threatened species in the wild. For example, we’re currently working to conserve critically endangered mountain chicken frogs and Bermudan skinks, both on the very brink of extinction and both incredibly difficult to breed. In many ways these species are heading towards a last chance saloon but our achievements with the tuatara certainly fill us with confidence that we can breed them and, subsequently, help to save them.

Tuatara facts

  • Scientific name: Sphenodon punctatus
  • Tuatara 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 the species became extinct everywhere except New Zealand
  • One of the most curious body parts of the tuatara is a ‘third eye’ on the top of its head. The ‘eye’ has a retina, cornea, a lens and nerve endings, yet it is not used for seeing
  • Tuatara do not reach sexual maturity until they are around 20 years old
  • Tuatara are the only reptile that do not have a penis, instead they mate like birds
  • In courtship, males circle the females before their crest becomes erect, leading to the performance of a Stolzer gang – a stiff legged walk
  • Scientists estimate that they can live for up to 120 years
  • Chester Zoo has seven tuatara – one male, five females and the as yet unsexed newcomer
  • The egg from which the youngster hatched was laid on April 11. It hatched on Dec 5
  • Chester Zoo first began caring for tuatara in 1962
  • The species were first protected by the New Zealand government in 1895