Three-eyed Dinosaur Lizard Found Alive
A hatchling of a rare reptile has been found in the wild on the New Zealand mainland. The last lizard-like descendant of a reptile species that walked the Earth with the dinosaurs 225 million years ago, Tuatara have unique characteristics, such as two rows of top teeth closing over one row at the bottom and a pronounced parietal eye — a light-sensitive pineal gland on the top of the skull that gives the appearance of a third eye.
The baby tuatara was discovered at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, located in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Although there are estimated to be about 50,000 tuatara living on small offshore islands that have been cleared of predators, this is the first time a hatchling has been seen on the mainland in about 200 years. The New Zealand natives were nearly extinct on the country’s three main islands by the late 1700s due to the introduction of predators such as rats.
“They’ve been extinct on the mainland for a long time,” said Lindsay Hazley, tuatara curator at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery on South Island. He added that “you can breed tuatara by eliminating risk, but to have results like this among many natural predators (like native birds) is a positive sign.”
“We are all absolutely thrilled with this discovery,” conservation manager Raewyn Empson said. “It means we have successfully re-established a breeding population back on the mainland, which is a massive breakthrough for New Zealand conservation.”
Empson said the hatchling is thought to be about one month old and likely came from an egg laid about 16 months ago. Two nests of eggs — the size of pingpong balls — were unearthed in the sanctuary last year and tuatara were expected to hatch around this time.
“He is unlikely to be the only baby to have hatched this season, but seeing him was an incredible fluke,” she said.
The youngster faces a tough journey to maturity despite being in the 620-acre sanctuary and protected by a predator-proof fence. It will have to run from the cannibalistic adult tuatara, and would make a tasty snack for the morepork (native owl), kingfisher and weka (New Zealand’s endemic flightless rail), Empson said.
“Like all the wildlife living here, he’ll just have to take his chances” Empson said.
About 200 tuatara have been released since 2005 into the Karori Sanctuary, which was established to breed native birds, insects and other creatures.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.