October 31, 2008

Prehistoric-Age Reptile Eggs Discovered In New Zealand

Officials said Friday that a rare reptile with lineage dating back to the dinosaur age has been found nesting on the New Zealand mainland for the first time in about 200 years.

Conservation manager Rouen Epson said staff at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in the capital, Wellington, found four leathery, white eggs from an indigenous tuatara during routine maintenance work Friday.

Epson said the nest was uncovered by accident and is the first concrete proof we have that our tuatara are breeding. "It suggests that there may be other nests in the sanctuary we don't know of."

Tuataras are dragon-like reptiles that grow to up to 32 inches in length. Zoologists say they are the last descendants of a species that walked the earth with the dinosaurs 225 million years ago.

The reptiles have several unique characteristics, such as two rows of top teeth closing over one row at the bottom. They also have a pronounced parietal eye, a light-sensitive pineal gland on the top of the skull. This white patch of skin - called its "third eye" - slowly disappears as they mature.

Tuataras are native to New Zealand, but by the 1700s they were nearly extinct on the country's three main islands due to the introduction of predators such as rats. They still live in the wild on 32 small offshore islands cleared of predators.

In 2005, the Karori Sanctuary, a 620-acre wilderness minutes from downtown Wellington, established a population of 70 tuatara. Another 130 were released in the sanctuary in 2007.

The sanctuary was established to breed native birds, insects and other creatures securely behind a predator-proof fence.

The four Tuatara eggs - the size of pingpong balls - were unearthed Friday but that there were likely more because the average nest contains around ten eggs, Empson said.

Workers immediately covered the eggs up again to avoid disturbing incubation.

Empson said if all goes well, juvenile tuatara could hatch any time between now and March.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia