Tuatara Largely Unchanged In 190 Million Years, New Fossil ShowsThe tuatara shared a common ancestor with reptiles about 250 million years ago.Photo by Mark Walshe/Shutterstock

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Tuatara Largely Unchanged In 190 Million Years, New Fossil Shows

The researchers found the fossil, Navajosphenodon sani gen. et sp. nov in Arizona and it is a nearly complete articulated skeleton of a sphenodontian.

Tuatara are endemic to New Zealand and while they resemble lizards, they are part of the order Rhynchocephalia.

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The tuatara (Sphenodon sp.), that lizard-like reptile endemic to New Zealand, has gone largely unchanged in 190 million years, and a fossil from a new sphenodontian species found in North America dating to the Early Jurassic period largely confirms the notion.

The researchers found the fossil, Navajosphenodon sani gen. et sp. nov in Arizona and it is a nearly complete articulated skeleton of a sphenodontian. It includes the full skeleton, the skull, mandibles and axial and appendicular skeleton. The species were collected in 1982-83 during filed sessions led by Dr. Farish A. Jenkins Jr. The fossils were housed in the vertebrate paleontology collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University and were undescribed for decades until now.


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The holotype was described using micro-computed tomography scanned at the university’s Center for Nanoscale Systems. Bones were recreated in 3D and the segmented objects were exported as individual 3D mesh files in stereolithography formats for 3D printing.


The Tuatara of New Zealand

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The complete paper, “An exceptionally preserved Sphenodon-like sphenodontian reveals deep time conservation of the tuatara skeleton and ontogeny” can be read in its entirety on the Nature.com website.

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Tuatara Information

The tuatara are endemic to New Zealand and while they resemble lizards, they are part of the order Rhynchocephalia and the two species in New Zealand are the only surviving members in their 250 million year old family. The tuatara shared a common ancestor with reptiles about 250 million years ago. The species is an important link between the extinct stem reptiles of which dinosaurs, modern reptiles, mammals, and birds evolved. Tuatara can live more than 100 years and reach sexual maturity at 10-20 years.