The Native Tuatara

Tuatara - Photograph: Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Imagine being the last representatives surviving 60 million years after all other members of your species became extinct! The Tuatara is that reptile and one can only imagine what the whakapapa would look like for our living fossils of today.

Tuatara are revered as protectors of the natural world, particularly in the realm of Tāne. Kaitiaki (guardians) of knowledge with wisdom attributed to their long life span and their third eye. 

They're not lizards (although they are lizard-like) - they eat lizards! They are reptiles that have ancient lineage going back over 200 million years. With only 2 species of Tuatara in the world and both of them exclusive to Aotearoa, it is a privilege to have that genealogy...that history...still here today.  The tuatara have a lifespan longer than humans with some still vigorous and healthy at a ripe old age of 70 and some living for 100 years or more.  

Maybe it's a secret in their diet of frogs, lizards and chicks that share their burrows or the plethora of invertebrates on offer in the ngahere like weta, worms, spiders etc and even their own young in lean times. Although they live in burrows and are active in the dark of night, they often come out in the daytime for a good bask in the sun. 

Henry, the world's oldest Tuatara in captivity at Invercargill, New Zealand

Whether you know them as Tuatara, Ngārara, Karara or Mokomoko, they hold great significance to tangata whenua. The Department of Conservation have formed relationships with Te Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai, Nga Ruahine, Ngāti Koata, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Awa to increase their knowledge and learn of their cultural significance while returning tuatara to their ancestral homes in the wild. Tuatara held in zoos and wildlife centres ensure the survival through threats to the wild population.

To some iwi, they are protectors of sacred items, places, individuals, tribes and highly treasured protectors of mauri. To other iwi they are messengers of Whiro, ariki or tapu but the fact is that they are taonga and have been kaitiakitanga of Aotearoa long before we arrived and will be here long after we are all gone.  

For more information:

Thesis - M-Baker
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Special mention on the amazing mahi of Mahina-a-rangi Baker who wrote a thesis on the values associated with Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Raukawa ki te tonga and Ngāti Toarangatira and Ngārara.

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MLC Pānui - December 2022
He kākano āhau - Stan Walker


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