No, I’m not hallucinating. I’m just going to step away from folklore for a moment. In the past I’ve talked about the largest flying dinosaurs and birds that we know from fossils. Now I’ll be taking a look at a few living creatures that resemble dragons.
Tuatara are often referred to as “living fossils.” The two species living today are survivors of a reptile family that thrived during the age of dinosaurs, 200 million years ago. Tuatara look a lot like lizards, but they aren’t. Their backbones are rather like those of fish, their legs are rather like those of amphibians, and their back ridges are rather like those of crocodiles. Amazingly, tuatara also have a photo-sensitive area that’s sometimes called a “third eye.” Scientists aren’t sure what it’s for.
These are not the world’s biggest reptiles, but they do reach a respectable 2-1/2 feet. They are long lived, up to 100 years, and they are slow to mature and reproduce. Environmental changes, like hunting by humans and invasive rats, have reduced their range considerably.
Tuatara were once found all over New Zealand. Modern populations can only thrive on small islands were rats are not present. These are mostly around the North Island of New Zealand. Rat extermination does seem to help young tuatara survive, and conservation programs have helped expand their range.
However, research shows that the ambient temperature plays a role in determining whether eggs develop into male or female animals. There’s some concern that, as global warming increases, fewer and fewer female tuatara will hatch. Eventually these ancient survivors may join the rest of their kin in extinction.
Native people in New Zealand had a number of folk beliefs about tuatara. They were believed to be messengers of Whiro, the deity controlling disasters and death. They were also considered to be divine guardians who kept people about of taboo areas. Women did not eat tuatara meat, and evidently some women tattooed images of tuatara on their bodies — presumably to guard their fertility. Today, native people regard tuatara as national treasures and an important part of their heritage.