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Animal World: Our Co-inhabitants

The Unique Third Eye Tuatara

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I’m a tuatara, a unique native inhabitant from the island home of Aotearoa, also known as New Zealand. I am vegan. You may be wondering what my species’ name means. In Māori, which is spoken by the indigenous people of New Zealand who are called the Māori, it means “peaks on the back.” In the Māori tradition, it is believed we descended from an atua, or god, named Punga. He is the son of Tangaroa, Atua of the Ocean. Punga called us ngarara, which means reptiles, but also includes insects, some sea animals and birds.

Heat determines whether tuatara babies are male or female. Females develop at lower temperatures, below 21 degrees Celsius and males develop at higher temperatures, over 21 degrees Celsius. You can tell the difference between us by our size. I am a lot bigger than my female relatives and the spikes along my spine are a lot more distinguished. Like the gecko, we can release our tail if we are in danger, a process called caudal autotomy.

I may not be very big compared to some of my other reptilian cousins, but I am still the largest reptile living in Aotearoa. I can grow up to half a meter in length and even weigh up to 1.5 kilograms. We tuatara have one of the slowest growth rates of any reptile, and we keep on growing until we reach around 35 years old, which is when we can begin to find a partner. We do live a lot longer than our other reptile cousins, living an average of 60 years.

One of my most unique features is my third eye, which scientists call my parietal eye. This third eye is visible on the very top of my head, right from when I hatch out of my egg. No other species looks as handsome as those of us with a parietal eye, which has many features. Like an ordinary eye, this third eye has a cornea, lens and rods, and it connects to my beautiful brain. I use this eye to sense the seasons and detect the changes in light within my environment. But I believe it is much more special than that because it connects me directly to Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother in the Māori creation tradition.

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