Environment Institute
New Zealand Tuatara, photo courtesy of Bernard Spraggs

This month marks 150 years since the iconic New Zealand tuatara was recognised to be the only living member of a distinct reptile lineage entirely separate from lizards and snakes.

Albert Günther, a zoologist was the first to recognise that the tuatara could not be grouped under the classification of “lizard”. His detailed anatomical description in 1867 revealed several features of the skeleton that set it apart such as the presence of a second row of upper teeth located parallel and just inside to the outer row. He placed it into a new group (Rhynchocephalia) which he regarded to have equal rank to lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and turtles.

The tuatara had been first described in 1931 and received its full name in 1842 but it wasn’t examined very closely and was simply considered a type of lizard. Genetics and fossils have confirmed Günther’s insightful conclusion, and we now recognise that the tuatara as the sole survivor of a once diverse lineage that shared a common ancestor with the group that includes lizards and snakes (Squamata) over 240 million years ago.

As the only living evolutionary cousin to over 10,000 species of snakes and lizards (Squamata), the tuatara has played a pivotal role for understanding the evolution and development of vertebrates. Often tagged with the misleading and unhelpful phrase “living fossil”, or “basal lepidsoarus”, the tuatara has attracted an enormous body of research and is a keystone organism for many evolutionary studies of vertebrate anatomy, development, and function.

For example, despite startling variation amongst the external genitals of amniotes, embryonic tuatara were critical for showing that all amniotes share developmental traits indicative of a single origin for this anatomical component. Similarly, a recent survey of tuatara specimens using X-ray micro Computed Tomography recently clarified which of the bony structures associated with joints (such as the knee cap) in lizards and tuatara were inherited from a common ancestor and which are relatively new. Its frame-like skull has led the tuatara becoming a model organism for biomechanics showing for example that the connective tissue between bones is important for redirecting stresses sustained during biting.

The tuatara also has an unusual, for reptile, cold-adapted physiology, and it is remarkable too for its impressive lifespan; tuatara can breed when over 100 years old! The tuatara is considered to be very reliant on its large eyes but increasing evidence suggests that scent may also be important to their life sensory tool kitThe unique heritage of the tuatara make it a key component of extant biodiversity and in turn the subject of intensive and innovative conservation research in New Zealand. It is also of special cultural importance to the Maori and the nation as a whole.



Writing in Nature, Marc Jones and Mark Hutchinson wish to draw attention to the 150 year anniversary. In Alison Cree’s recent book on the tuatara – a genuine tour de force – she describes 1867 as a “momentous” year for tuatara classification.

The anniversary is also recognised by an article in the Conversation by Marc. The article was featured in a daily email round up of the Conversation under Science and Technology.

There will be a dedicated celebration event hosted by the Royal Society of South Australia later this month.

Follow hashtag #150NotALizard to celebrate the anniversary online.

Marc Jones and Mark Hutchinson are currently working on a variety of projects together including measuring bite force and aspects of skull anatomy amongst Australian agamid lizards.


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Photo courtesy of Frank Reith

Environment Institute member, ARC Future Fellow Dr Frank Reith has been busy with interviews on National radio lately. Dr Reith has been interviewed on Radio Adelaide speaking about ways to process the gold that currently goes to waste from electronics and the mining sector. He continued his National tour of ABC Radio, with his next […]

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An international team of scientists including from the University of Adelaide have discovered 467 million hectares of previously unreported forest – an area equivalent to 60% of the size of Australia, and increasing current estimates of global forest cover by 10%. Published today in Science, the scientists say that not only will the new finding […]

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An international team of scientists including Environment Institute Members have discovered previously unreported forest, published in Science today. Associate Professor Ben Sparrow, Postdoc Research Fellow Dr Greg Guerin and Professor Andrew Lowe were involved in the discovery of drylands forest which covers 467 million hectares. To put this in perspective, this new forest discover is […]

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New research in to Reef Perch fish earbones led by Dr Gretchen Grammar from the Southern Seas Laboratory, with contributions from Christopher Izzo and Bronwyn Gillanders. The new study published in Ecological Monographs investigates whether the elements found in the hard structural components of fish an tell us about the fish’s environment. This paper was produced in collaboration […]

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Dr Neville Crossman

Dr Neville Crossman, from the School of Biological Sciences and for the Department of Ecology & Environmental Science Seminar Series, will be presenting examples of his work integrating science and expertise from the biophysical and socio-economic sciences to quantify and value the benefits from conservation and restoration of land and water resources. Title: Measuring the benefits of ecosystem Management: […]

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Em Sherratt

The Environment Institute welcomes a new University of Adelaide Beacon Research Fellow Dr Emma Sherratt. Dr Emma Sherratt joins the lab of ARC Future Fellow Dr Kate Sanders. Dr Emma Sherratt specialises in studying the shape of organisms using x-ray CT scans. She has previously worked on scallops, rabbits, mice and will be working on […]

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Ocean Perch (Helicolenus percoides)
Also called: Red Gurnard Perch, Jock Stewart, Coral Cod, Coral Perch, Reef Ocean Perch, Red Perch, Red Rock Perch, Red Gurnard Scorpionfish, and Sea Perch. Photo credit: Gretchen L. Grammer

  Environment Institute members Professor Sean Connell, Associate Professor Ivan Nagelkerken, and PhD candidate Silvan Goldenberg spoke to Radio Adelaide recently. They discussed their recently published work on how climate change could possible destabilise our coastal food webs, and what we can do to help. Listen to their full interview Radio Adelaide’s website, or read their […]

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Superstars of STEM

Calling all women in STEM! New opportunity to smash gender stereotypes and become a superstar of STEM! Superstars of STEM is a new program by Science & Technology of Australia, geared to increasing the public visibility of women in STEM. The program will see 30 of the nation’s most dynamic and inspiring female scientists and technologists complete […]

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A new paper published in Global Change Ecology shows our coastal food webs could be on the brink of collapse due to rising CO2 levels causing oceans acidification. The research led by Environment Institute Member, Silvan Goldenberg, a PhD candidate found that increased temperature and CO2 levels had an overall detrimental effect on their simulated ocean environment. Environment […]

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