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New home for rare tuatara reptiles

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Henry, a Tuatara in captivity at Invercargill, New Zealand, fathered young at 111 years old. (Photo: KeresH)

The tuatara is an ancient species of reptile native to the islands of New Zealand. They were around during the time of the dinosaurs, but today their population is in trouble. Invasive Polynesian rats drove the reptiles to extinction on New Zealand's two main islands centuries ago. Now, tuataras can only be found in sanctuaries and on three dozen smaller islands off the New Zealand coast.

In March, 60 tuatara were reintroduced to Motuihe Island, in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland, in a bid to establish another healthy, breeding population for the species. The New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Motuihe Trust worked together to rid the island of non-native predators and other invasive pests, which threaten many of New Zealand's endemic species. In a public "handing over ceremony," 30 of the 60 tuatara were released. The remaining reptiles were released in undisclosed locations on the island after the public had left.

There are an estimated 50,000 — 100,000 tuatara living in the wild. They are not currently endangered, but their limited range puts them at risk. Besides natural and introduced predators and habitat loss, tuatara face the threat of the black market reptile trade. In the illegal pet trade, a single tuatara can fetch more than $40,000.

The tuatara is an ancient and unique species. They resemble lizards, but actually belong to a distinct order (Sphenodontia), of which the two tuatara species are the only surviving members. Tuatara have an extremely slow growth rate. They take ten to twenty years to reach sexual maturity. Mating occurs around every four years, the slowest interval in any reptile. Wild tuatara have been known to reproduce well into their sixties, and "Henry," a tuatara at Southland Museum in Invercargill, New Zealand, fathered young at 111 years-old. The average lifespan in the wild is about 60 years old, but they can live to be over 100 years old and, in captivity, possibly live as long as 200 years. The rare reptile is considered a natural treasure in New Zealand.