What if we told you dinosaurs were living right here is Dallas? That would sound crazy, right? Well, it’s true.
While they’re not the towering, fierce giants of the Jurassic that you’re picturing, tuataras are the only surviving member of a distinct reptilian order, Sphehodontia, which lived alongside early dinosaurs 200 million years ago in the Upper Triassic period.
Their small size and dusty brown scales may not catch the eye of many Zoo visitors, but these “living fossils” have one of the most fascinating stories of all of our residents. Don’t be fooled by their scaly skin and long tails – the tuatara isn’t your average lizard!
Tuataras are incredibly rare. They are found only in remote areas of New Zealand or in a few lucky institutions across the globe. The Dallas Zoo is one of only four U.S. zoos to receive permission to host the rare reptile. Not only does the New Zealand government have to grant approval for the export, but a tribe of native New Zealanders also must agree that the export has direct benefits to the species in the wild. When the tuataras arrived here in 1992, a Māori priest came along with them to perform a special blessing for the animals in their new home.
They may have lived through the extinction of dinosaurs, but unfortunately tuataras aren’t indestructible. Oddly enough, one of the biggest threats to their survival is small enough to fit in your hand – rats! Tuatara eggs must incubate 12 to 15 months before hatching, which gives the rats and other predators plenty of time to sneak into the den to steal a snack.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to save these animals from extinction. The Dallas Zoo has donated thousands of dollars to our tuatara conservation partners in New Zealand to fund work in their natural habitat. Because tuatara eggs are so vulnerable in the wild, one of the best ways to ensure the survival of this species is through zoological breeding programs.
“We’re thrilled to be able to work with tuataras and have the opportunity to share with the public a totally unique and ancient lineage of reptile found in very few facilities across the globe,” said Ruston Hartdegen, Dallas Zoo’s curator of herpetology.
We are fortunate to have not one, but three tuataras in our care, and we hope to see that number rise soon. Unlike most reptiles, tuataras don’t breed until they’re 13 to 20 years old, and our two females and male have reached maturity. Veterinary staff recently performed a check-up and are happy to report that all three are in great health. With a little luck and a lot of patience, we hope to welcome the next much-needed generation of tuataras.