Definitions for tuataraˌtu əˈtɑr ə; -ˈtɛər ə
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tuatara, Sphenodon punctatum(noun)
only extant member of the order Rhynchocephalia of large spiny lizard-like diapsid reptiles of coastal islands off New Zealand
Either of two reptiles, Sphenodon punctatus or Sphenodon guntheri, native to New Zealand, that resemble lizards.
Origin: From tuatara.
The tuatara is a reptile that is endemic to New Zealand which, though it resembles most lizards, is part of a distinct lineage, order Rhynchocephalia. The two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of its order, which flourished around 200 million years ago. Their most recent common ancestor with any other extant group is with the squamates. For this reason, tuatara are of great interest in the study of the evolution of lizards and snakes, and for the reconstruction of the appearance and habits of the earliest diapsids. Tuatara are greenish brown and gray, and measure up to 80 cm from head to tail-tip and weigh up to 1.3 kg with a spiny crest along the back, especially pronounced in males. Their dentition, in which two rows of teeth in the upper jaw overlap one row on the lower jaw, is unique among living species. They are further unusual in having a pronounced photoreceptive eye dubbed the "third eye", whose current function is a subject of ongoing research, but is thought to be involved in setting circadian and seasonal cycles. They are able to hear, although no external ear is present, and have a number of unique features in their skeleton, some of them apparently evolutionarily retained from fish. Although tuatara are sometimes called "living fossils", recent anatomical work has shown they have changed significantly since the Mesozoic era.
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