Sunbathing Tuatara
Sunbathing native Tuatara. This animal is endemic to New Zealand

This spring, hundreds of young tuatara are making a new home on one of New Zealand’s offshore islands.
Born at Victoria University of Wellington, and reared at Nga Manu, a nature reserve north of Wellington, these tuatara have been the subject of six years of research by Dr Nicky Nelson at Victoria University. Now, the tuatara is headed for life in the wild on Whakaterepapanui, an island managed by the Department of Conservation, but they’ll remain under Dr Nelson’s watchful eye.
“It’s a chance to follow these individuals in nature and see what the consequences are on those incubation programmed started five years ago,” says Dr Nelson. “We’ll be able to analyze if smaller ones survive better than larger ones or vice versa and just all sorts of aspects of translocation techniques.”
Already Dr Nelson has studied how tuatara fare being hatched in a controlled artificial environment against that in the wild. Her work found that considerably more hatched and survived in the controlled environment than did in natural nests.
“In the artificial environment we were able to regulate temperature and other conditions to help them survive,” says Dr Nelson. “In nature they are more vulnerable to weather conditions, predation by other animals such as moreporks, and other factors that can cause losses of eggs and hatchlings.”
Another significant finding in Dr Nelson’s research has been that temperature during incubation determines whether females or male’s hatch. If the eggs are incubated at 21 degrees Celsius or lower most eggs hatch as females, while at 22 degrees and above all hatch as males. Dr Nelson will conduct further research into how global warming may affect sex ratios amongst tuatara populations.
For Bruce Benseman, who helped babysit the tuatara at Nga Manu nature reserve, said the project has been a unique opportunity to help raise such a large number of tuatara. “It’s been a privilege to have what has been the largest mainland tuatara population in the world here and to be contributing to the recovery of a threatened species.”
This spring’s group of tuatara are the second batch to be released onto Whakaterepapanui where a new tuatara population is being established. A year ago, 88 of the Victoria University tuatara were released; this spring 342 have been moved. Their arrival is part of a beginning the restoration of native wildlife to the island after it was cleared of rats as part of a Department of Conservation restoration programmed.
According to DOC, the Victoria University research is making an important contribution to tuatara conservation. “There has been good cooperation between DOC and Victoria University that is increasing our knowledge about tuatara and helping us in our management of the species,” says DOC’s tuatara recovery group leader Peter Gaze.
Says Dr Nelson: “The conservation techniques we have researched and developed in raising these tuatara can be applied to smaller and more vulnerable tuatara populations on other islands. Achieving a higher survival rate through raising them in a controlled environment provides a surer way of building their numbers.”
The tuatara is the last representative of a reptile species that appeared at the same time as the dinosaurs.

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