March 19, 2009

Scientists Discover Baby Lizard Once Thought Extinct

Conservationists said on Thursday that a rare "living fossil" tuatara reptile has been born in the wild in an area of New Zealand where it was believed to have been extinct for 200 years, the AFP reported.

Scientists believed the tuatara had been extinct from New Zealand's three main islands for 200 years. Scientists say the lizard-like reptile, which shared the earth with dinosaurs, has survived for over 200 million years.

However, conservationists reported more than 200 of the lizards have been reintroduced from offshore islands into the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in the capital Wellington, where the baby was discovered.

Workers at the sanctuary found the three-inch, month old hatchling in an area where tuatara nests were discovered late last year.

The sanctuary's conservation manager Raewyn Empson called it an "extremely significant discovery."

"It means we have successfully re-established a breeding population... which is a massive breakthrough for New Zealand conservation," she said, adding that it was unlikely that he was the only baby to have hatched this season.

She said the cannibalistic adult tuataras and some native birds would be the baby lizard's biggest threats. "Like all the wildlife living here, he'll just have to take his chances," she said.

Hatching within the safety of a mammal-proof fence has already given him a far better chance of survival than he would get outside, she said.

Adult tuatara mothers lay and then abandon their eggs, which will then hatch about 12-15 months later.

The arrival of the Pacific rat and the Polynesian Maori in the previously uninhabited country about 700 years ago led to the reptile's believed-to-be extinction on New Zealand's three main islands.

Tuataras live to be around 100 years old, but do not become fertile until reaching the age of 13. They have two rows of top teeth closing over one row at the bottom and a pronounced parietal eye - a light-sensitive pineal gland on the top of the skull that gives the appearance of a third eye.


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