A hatchling of a rare reptile with lineage dating back to the dinosaur age has been found in the wild on the New Zealand mainland for the first time in 200 years, a wildlife official revealed today.
The baby tuatara was discovered by staff during routine maintenance work at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in the capital, Wellington, conservation manager Raewyn Empson said.
'We are all absolutely thrilled with this discovery,' she said. 'It means we have successfully re-established a breeding population back on the mainland, which is a massive breakthrough for New Zealand conservation.'
Enlarge The baby tuatara discovered at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. It was last seen in the wild on the New Zealand mainland around 200 years ago
Tuatara are the last lizard-like descendants of a reptile species that walked the Earth alongside dinosaurs 225 million years ago, say zoologists.
There are estimated to be about 50,000 living in the wild on 32 small offshore islands cleared of predators, but this is the first time a hatchling has been seen on the mainland in about 200 years.
The New Zealand natives were nearly extinct on the country's three main islands by the late 1700s due to the introduction of predators such as rats.
Ms Empson said that the hatchling is thought to be about one month old and is likely to have come from an egg laid about 16 months ago. Two nests of eggs the size of ping pong balls were found in the sanctuary last year.
'He is unlikely to be the only baby to have hatched this season, but seeing him was an incredible fluke,' she said.
Enlarge The tuatara, which date back to the dinosaurs, uniquely have three rows of teeth, and a gland in its forehead giving the appearance of a 'third eye'
The youngster faces a tough journey to maturity despite being in the 620-acre (250 hectare) sanctuary and protected by a predator-proof fence.
It is vulnerable from the cannibalistic adult tuatara, the morepork (native owl), kingfisher and weka (New Zealand's endemic flightless rail), Ms Empson said.
'Like all the wildlife living here, he'll just have to take his chances' she added.
'They've been extinct on the mainland for a long time,' said Lindsay Hazley, tuatara curator at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery on South Island. 'You can breed tuatara by eliminating risk, but to have results like this among many natural predators is a positive sign.' he said.
About 200 tuatara have been released since 2005 into the Karori Sanctuary, which was established to breed native birds, insects and other creatures.
Tuatara have unique characteristics, such as 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.
Rare baby reptile dating back to dinosaur age is found on New Zealand mainland for first time in 200 years | Mail Online