Tuataras are reptiles that were around even before dinosaurs. This lesson will teach you about tuataras, including where they live, what they look like and what they eat.

What is a Tuatara?

You’re walking around in a forest near a coastline when you see an interesting creature peeking out of a hole in the ground. It has spikes running down its back like it’s got a Mohawk haircut and looks like a chubby lizard. But that’s no lizard you’re looking at. It’s a tuatara!

Tuataras (pronounced two-uh-TAR-uhs) are reptiles that have big heads, strong legs, razor-sharp claws, light-colored spikes on their backs and chunky tails. Reptiles are animals that have a backbone, are cold-blooded, breathe air, usually lay eggs and have bony plates or scales, like the tuatara does.

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And though they look like lizards, tuataras are really the last survivors of a separate group of reptiles that roamed the Earth before dinosaurs existed. All of their relatives are now extinct!

Because of the shape of its head, a tuatara is sometimes called a ‘beak-head’. A tuatara even has a third eye on top of its head that’s covered by skin. Unlike the other two eyes, this third eye can sense light but not clear images of objects. And though it has an extra eye, a tuatara has no ear holes but can still hear.

Tuataras are spotted and come in different colors, including army green, gray, brownish-black and reddish-pink. And just like you change your clothes, tuataras shed their skin, but they only do that once every year.

Male tuataras are bigger than females; the biggest males can weigh as much as three pounds, which is a little heavier than three regular cans of soda.

Where Do Tuataras Live?

If you want to see tuataras in the wild, you’ll have to travel to New Zealand, because that’s the only place in nature where you’ll find them. They used to hang out on New Zealand’s mainland, but now they can only be found in parts of the North Island and a few other smaller islands. However, scientists are trying to return tuataras to protected areas on the mainland where they used to live.

Tuatara near its burrow
Tuatara near its burrow

While you might think a town or city is the perfect place to live, a tuatara’s idea of the perfect habitat is a little different. Preferred habitats include forests near coastlines and open areas with short, scrubby brush and loose, grainy dirt. Tuataras are great at digging burrows where they can stay safe and snooze, and that kind of dirt makes it easier for them to hollow out the perfect home.

What Do Tuataras Eat?

Adult tuataras are nocturnal and are most active at night, hunting for food. Their teeth are sharp extensions of their jawbones, and they use them like saw blades to help grind up their meals.

Tuatara with sharp teeth
Tuatara with sharp teeth

Tuataras like to chow down on beetles and other insects but will also snack on birds and their eggs, along with lizards. Younger tuataras hunt during the day to avoid being eaten by adult tuataras in the dark!

Lesson Summary

Tuataras are New Zealand reptiles with big heads, three eyes, strong legs, sharp claws, spiky backs and chunky tails. They look like lizards but are really the last survivors of a group of reptiles that roamed the Earth before dinosaurs existed but are now extinct. Tuataras live in forests near coastlines and open, scrubby areas with grainy soil; because they’re nocturnal, they hunt for food like beetles, birds and lizards at night.