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Baby reptile a 200-year first

G-Online

Conservation

Baby tuatara

Credit: Tom Lynch/Karori Sanctuary Trust

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A baby tuatara, thought to be the first to have hatched in the wild in over 200 years on mainland New Zealand, has been found in Wellington.

Tuataras, whose name in Maori means "peaks on the back", are reptiles unique to New Zealand. They are sometimes referred to as "living fossils", because they are the last surviving members of an ancient group of reptiles called Sphenodontia, and because they have remained relatively unchanged for over 200 million years.

Though reared through a number of captive breeding programs in the country, tuatara are thought to have been extinct as a wild breeding population on the three main islands of New Zealand for around two centuries, having been wiped out by the introduced Pacific rat.

The discovery of the baby reptile is therefore "nothing short of incredible", said David Perks, Chief Executive of Positively Wellington Tourism.

The find came during routine maintenance work at the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary in Wellington, when conservation officer Bernard Smith found the 8cm-long hatchling in an area where nests had been discovered.

The tuatara is thought to be around one month old, and is likely to have hatched from eggs laid around 16 months ago.

The eggs themselves would have originated from a population of 200 tuatara, transferred to the sanctuary area from Stephens Island in Cook Straight - one of their last offshore island refuges - between 2005 and 2007.

"This is what the story of [the sanctuary] is all about - the rebirth of a long lost land; a...vision to regenerate a piece of New Zealand to what it was before humans arrived and share it with the world," Perks said.

"Where else in the world could you see the first wild birth of a 'living fossil' on the mainland for at least 200 years just minutes away from the centre of a capital city?"