Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tuatara

The tuatara is an amniote of the family Sphenodontidae, endemic to New Zealand. The two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of the Sphenodontians which flourished around 200 million years ago,and are in the genus Sphenodon. Tuatara resemble lizards, but are equally related to lizards and snakes, both of which are classified as Squamata, the closest living relatives of tuatara. For this reason, tuatara are of great interest in the study of the evolution of lizards and snakes, and for the reconstruction of the appearance and habits of the earliest diapsids (the group that additionally includes birds and crocodiles).

Tuatara are greenish brown, and measure up to 80 cm (32 in) from head to tail-tip with a spiny crest along the back, especially pronounced in males. Their dentition, in which two rows of teeth in the upper jaw overlap one row on the lower jaw, is unique among living species. They are further unusual in having a pronounced parietal eye, dubbed the "third eye", whose current function is a subject of ongoing research. They are able to hear although no external ear is present, and have a number of unique features in their skeleton, some of them apparently evolutionarily retained from fish. Although tuatara are sometimes called "living fossils", recent taxonomic and molecular work has shown that they have changed significantly since the Mesozoic era.

The tuatara has been classified as an endangered species since 1895 (the second species, S. guntheri, was not recognised until 1989). Tuatara, like many of New Zealand's native animals, are threatened by habitat loss and the introduced Polynesian Rat (Rattus exulans). They were extinct on the mainland, with the remaining populations confined to 32 offshore islands, until the first mainland release into the heavily fenced and monitored Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in 2005. The name "tuatara" derives from the Māori language, and means "peaks on the back".As with many other Māori loanwords, the plural form is now generally the same as the singular in formal New Zealand English usage. "Tuataras" remains common in less formal speech, particularly among older speakers.

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