In my hometown of Invercargill we have our very own living dinosaur. His name is Henry and he’s very old, and yes, he’s still alive! New Zealand is unique in having some very special wildlife, nothing really that could do you much harm, we’re relatively peaceful down under, but unique all the same.
Old Henry is a living treasure, he’s a Tuatara and is thought to have been hatched around the 1900’s. He’s old!
Tuatara, the living fossil of New Zealand is a reptile with a distinct lineage, ‘Rhynchocephalia’ – and the Tuatara is the only member still alive today. The rest of the family inhabited the earth about 200 million years ago.
Tuatara are greenish brown and are about 80 cm (31 inches) from head to tail tip. The males especially have the dinosaur look of sporting a spiny crest along the back. Both sexes have no external ears and have relatively long claws. Although widely claimed to be living fossils, recent studies have suggested that Tuatara have changed significantly since the Mesozoic era.
Tuatara is Maori which means ‘peaks on back’. The Tuatara has been protected by law since 1895 and a breeding program is helping this special species survive. Invercargill have Henry, who became a father (possibly for the first time) on January 23, 2009 at the age of 111. The breeding program at Invercargill has been going well with another batch hatched in late 2011.
Tuatara lay eggs and the whole process from copulation to hatching can take anywhere from 12 to 15 months. Reproduction typically occurs at two to five year intervals because it takes the female a few years to provide eggs with yolks and then another seven months or so to form the shell, that’s a lot of work.
Tuatara feed on beetles, crickets and spiders and in the wild share the burrows of birds such as petrels, prions and sharewaters. Tuatara also dig their own burrows and are territorial, inflicting serious bites to intruders.
Tuatara once lived throughout the whole of New Zealand in the wild, but now are just found on the off shore islands which are free of rodents and other introduced mammalian predators. There are about 100,000 surviving Tuatara in New Zealand and are unusual in that they prefer cool weather – they do not survive well above 25C but can live below 5C by sheltering in burrows. It is due to this temperature why Invercargill has a very good record of breeding Tuatara. Tuatara, the living fossil of New Zealand is a national treasure and the first native species to be fully protected by law.
Invercargill ‘shares’ their newly hatched and well grown young Tuatara with other Institutions that participate in breeding programs and are very proud of Old Henry for finally doing his part at such an old age.
About the Author:
Monica Toretto is a writer, painter, photographer and blogger. She lives with her two young sons in Invercargill near Bluff. She has traveled widely in Canada and the US and worked as a veterinary technician before returning to New Zealand. Her work has appeared in several magazines in the UK and New Zealand. She has also authored a book of poetry and photography called ‘Words’.