Not being an avid follower of the Chinese zodiac, I was not aware that 2012 was the Year of the Dragon until yesterday, when I read a post of a favourite blogsite of mine. So, I thought it would be an opportune time to write about a New Zealand “dragon”.

The tuatara represents 225 million years of history on four scaly (and rather wrinkly) legs; it is the only survivor of an ancient group of reptiles that roamed the earth at the same time as dinosaurs. Its relatives became extinct 60 million years ago – and for this reason it is often referred to as a ‘living fossil’.

Tuatara once lived throughout the mainland of New Zealand but people and human-introduced rats drove them to extinction there. They are now found only on 37 off-shore islands and mainland islands like the Karori Sanctuary. The total tuatara population on all these islands is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000.

To increase their chances of survival on off-shore islands such as Stephen’s Island in the Marborough Sounds, some tuatara are incubated and nurtured in sanctuaries to an age when they can be released back into their island homes and fend for themselves. As a trustee of the Nga Manu Nature Reserve in Waikanae, I recently had the great honour of observing the annual “health-check up” done on the little tuatara while they are being kept in a sanctuary environment. This health check is undertaken by University of Victoria scientists, who are among New Zealand’s foremost experts in tuatara biology [see above centre].

In order to do their check-up, the tuatara youngsters are dug out of their burrows and put into buckets, carefully placed to keep them cool and out of direct sunlight. The various measurements and blood checks are done and they are then returned to their burrows for another year. The youngsters don’t seem to be too bothered by this rude interruption of their slumbering schedule, and often become quite artistic in the way they arrange themselves in their buckets [see right].

For kids (or adults) wanting to know more about tuatara, the Kiwi Conservation Club has a great page on tuatara. To get close up and personal to a tuatara [like the one photographed top left], one great place to go is the Nga Manu Nature Reserve, on the Kapiti Coast, about an hour north of Wellington. (All photos by C. Knight.)

envirohistory NZ wishes all its readers and followers a great Year of the Dragon, and hope you too get the opportunity to experience the wonder of New Zealand’s little dragon in the not too distant future.

See also: A Kapiti environmental history – Nga Manu Nature Reserve; First day of spring at Nga Manu Nature Reserve