It's 11 p.m. on a Thursday, and I'm watching an ancient creature break out of its soft shell. Few modern humans have ever seen something like this, not until the footage was captured last month.
Thirty years ago, seeing a baby tuatara sniff the air for the first time would’ve been unimaginable, even though the reptiles have been hatching and burrowing and breeding and dying for at least 80 million years in what we now call New Zealand. While the prehistoric anomalies survived dinosaurs stomping around their sandy nests, the recent arrival of humans nearly did them in.
Moving the tuatara back to the mainland—after having been gone for a century—restored something the Maori people call turangawaewae, which, though it literally translates to "a place to put your feet," means something closer to "where you belong."
It's largely through the growing, extraordinary—and at times, controversial—efforts of a small group of researchers based out of Wellington, New Zealand, that the "living dinosaurs" even have a shot at existence today. For more than two decades, these researchers have been chasing tuatara—animals so rare that they demand their own category in the reptile family, distinct from lizards, crocs, turtles, and birds—across the islands of the New Zealand archipelago. From the edge of extinction in the early 1980s, the scientists rescued tuatara, incubated them, and released them from wet cardboard tubes onto islands and pockets of mainland systematically cleared of mammalian predators.
Knowing all this, my next thought stands out as truly evil: Watching the baby animal's pulse go goo-goosh goo-goosh in its exposed throat, I can't help but imagine how easy it would be for me—for anything with teeth—to eat it. The whole process takes seven hours, the tuatara hatchling gingerly poking its gooey, wedge-shaped head out of what looks like a punctured balloon.
ACCORDING TO ONE MAORI tradition, the story how tuatara came to live on land began with a tuatara named Ngarara talking to his brother, a shark. Ngarara, who was deciding whether to live on land or in the sea, told the shark that living in the sea would only get the brothers eaten by humans. The shark scoffed at and cursed the reptile. "Go ashore and be smoked out of your hole with burning fern leaves," he said.
The shark's warning about humans was prescient. Before the 14th century, the rodent-free New Zealand mainland and surrounding islands were so hospitable to the reptiles that they likely hosted one tuatara per 200 square feet, and sometimes one tuatara per 50 square feet—an area smaller than a typical parking space. When Polynesians arrived around 1300, their rats and dogs decimated tuatara, and the situation rapidly deteriorated beginning in 1769, when British explorer Captain Cook started mapping the territory. Soon came the sailors, cats, pigs, goats, and more rats.
“Tuatara are roughly the size of an iguana,” Dr. Charles Daugherty, an American expat and renowned tuatara ecologist, says on a Skype call from his office at Victoria University of Wellington. He holds up his fingers about a foot apart. “They’re easy prey.”
The sex of tuatara hatchlings is determined by temperature ... and thus, rising temperatures due to climate change could wipe out female tuatara for good.
For nearly 80 million years on New Zealand, tuatara had no mammalian predators. So by the time the rats arrived, tuatara found themselves powerless against the masses of furry things with claws burrowing into their holes and devouring their young.
By 1973, ecologists figured that tuatara, now extinct on the New Zealand mainland, were barely surviving on some 30 islands—many smaller than a Walmart. And by the late 1980s, only seven islands hosted healthy tuatara populations.
FOR A LONG TIME, humans had no idea—or simply didn't care—how rare tuatara actually were. But demand for tuatara specimens shot through the roof after a 19th-century scientist at the British Museum noticed how different tuatara looked compared to the other lizards on the shelf. First, tuatara skulls didn't have the right number of holes for the animals to qualify as lizards. But maybe most curiously, tuatara lacked penises. That's because, unlike lizard hemipenes, tuatara genitalia are actually internal, like the kind belonging to birds.
At their fastest, tuatara can only mate once every two years. But whatever they lack in speed, the reptiles make up for in longevity. In 2008, when a 111-year-old tuatara virgin named Henry finally shacked up with a female at the Southland Museum, Kiwis went nuts.
"His mating with the sultry 80-year-old Mildred in 2008 was watched avidly - reminiscent of the days when a bloody sheet was hung from the balcony as proof of consummation," political columnist Claire Trevitt later wrote of the momentous occasion in the New Zealand Herald.
The other distinguishing feature of the tuatara's reproductive cycle, however, threatens to undo much of the human labor that's kept the species alive. The sex of tuatara hatchlings is determined by temperature—eggs incubated in warmer soil create males, while cooler soils turn out females—and thus, rising temperatures due to climate change could wipe out female tuatara for good.
IN 1949, TWO ZOOLOGISTS, the American Museum of Natural History's Karl Patterson Schmidt and the Victoria University of Wellington's William Dawbin, started tracking individual tuatara on a tiny island just off the northern tip of New Zealand's southern mainland. Over the next decade, they marked tuatara in the way that herpetologists did back then—by chopping off toes into a recognizable pattern.
In the early ’80s, Charles Daugherty, the same ecologist I spoke to on Skype, went to Stephens Island and found the same toe-less, nearly-extinct tuatara running around that had been marked by Dawbin and Schmidt. That's when the scientific community figured out they could live to be so old. “We're still catching the animals that were marked in the 1950s or ’60s,” he says.
A Stephens Island tuatara that was successfully relocated to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. It's tagged with colored beads for tracking. (Photo: Cliff Hanger/Flickr)
Daugherty's work also shifted the needle from studying tuatara to actively saving them. In the late ’80s, he and fellow researchers began visiting every island on which tuatara still survived. They captured as many adult reptiles as they could, then brought them into captivity to prepare tuatara for homesteading on islands where they had once been plentiful. While Daugherty and his team were incubating new hatchlings from the captured tuatara, New Zealand's Department of Conservation won a grant from the San Diego Zoo to wipe out rats from former tuatara turf.
Today, mostly thanks to the work of Daugherty and his research team, 45 stable tuatara populations now exist throughout New Zealand. The researchers’ methods became so popular that communities started requesting tuatara in order to restore prior ecosystems and boost eco-tourism dollars. “Tuatara would always come up for Maori, especially areas where they’ve had tuatara in the recent past,” says Nicky Nelson, a former Ph.D. student of Daugherty’s and a major tuatara conservationist in her own right. “It wasn’t necessarily thought of as food; it was thought to be wise because it was so long-lived.”
"We're not an old country. We're not like France, where we have cave paintings. We don't have the architecture of Greece or Rome. But we do have these animals that are the remnants of lineages that are 250 million years old."
Ecologists even carved out a piece of the city of Wellington to function something like a tuatara’s prehistoric playground—anyone can now go watch tuatara within the enclosure’s seven-foot-tall fence. To Daugherty, moving the tuatara back to the mainland—after having been gone for a century—restored something the Maori people call turangawaewae, which, though it literally translates to “a place to put your feet,” means something closer to “where you belong.”
BUT IF TUATARA ARE to survive into the next century, conservationists will likely soon have to move them to islands on which they've never lived. Since 2007, scientists have been embroiled in a debate over “assisted colonization,” the idea that conservationists can—and should—save endangered species from climate change by picking them up and moving them to more hospitable locations. Critics accuse supporters of assisted colonization of “playing God.” In reality, the conservationists would be playing something closer to Noah—picking the animals up, keeping them safe in ark-like lab conditions, and releasing them into cooler areas where females have a fighting chance of being born.
Still, moving the animals to new islands presents much larger unknowns. Two years ago, 44 tuatara flew on Air New Zealand to the cooler southern island of Orokonui, a move that scientists hoped would create more females. It was the first assisted colonization of its kind for tuatara. As long as rodents don't break into the predator-free zone, they have reason to be optimistic. Then again, Daugherty says, all that could be foiled if someone decided to throw a rat over the fence.
“Some people at least think that humans shouldn't interfere—leave nature to its own devices. I think New Zealand has been much more willing than other countries to actively intervene,” Daugherty says. “It's a matter of values,” he continues. “We're not an old country. We're not like France, where we have cave paintings. We don't have the architecture of Greece or Rome. But we do have these animals that are the remnants of lineages that are 250 million years old.”
But New Zealand's values are about to be tested by far more than just tuatara. In 2007, a man named Ioane Teitiota and his wife Angua Erika flew to New Zealand from the tiny island nation of Kiribati, which climate scientists predict will subside under the ocean by 2050. Teitiota and Erika made a life in New Zealand and became parents to three kids. But after their work visas expired, Teitiota made a landmark plea with the New Zealand government: He was the world’s first climate refugee, and the country should let them stay.
In May, New Zealand courts rejected his appeal—though Teitiota's lawyer told reporters earlier this year that the family might take the issue to the New Zealand Supreme Court, or, failing that, the United Nations. Only time will tell if the idea of a rightful home, turangawaewae, can evolve in time to save humans, too.