From today I’ll be starting a semi-regular series of posts about my favourite reptile and #1 study organism, the tuatara. I want to start by clearing up a misconception that I see repeated time and time again, that tuatara are “New Zealand’s living dinosaur”.
Tuatara are an entirely different lineage of reptiles from the dinosaurs. Here’s a simplified phylogenetic tree of reptiles to illustrate:
The closest living relatives of the dinosaurs are the crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles), and birds. In fact, it is birds that are the “living dinosaurs”, as they evolved from the Theropod dinosaurs, the lineage that includes tyrannosaurs, Velociraptors and Archaeopteryx. Crocodilians, dinosaurs and birds are collectively known as Archosaurs.
Tuatara are in their own Order, Rhynchocephalia, which is entirely separate from the Archosaurs. The closest relatives of the Rhynchocephalids are the squamates (lizards and snakes), but they are not particularly close relatives at all, having diverged early in reptilian evolution, around 250 million years ago. The tuatara is the only remaining species of Rhynchocephalid living today, but back in the time of the dinosaurs (around 65-230 million years ago), Rhynchocephalids were everywhere. Numerous different species of fossil Rynchocephalid have been found across Europe, Africa and the Americas. However, Rhynchocephalids appear to have died out everywhere except New Zealand around the same time the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Why they hung on in New Zealand is a mystery, but may have something to do with the apparent lack of competition from mammals.
Modern-day tuatara share a lot of morphological features with some of the earliest Rhynchocephalid fossils. That, combined with the fact that they are the only living species from this lineage, has earned them the title of “living fossil”. However, it is premature to say that tuatara are “unevolved” or “unchanged since the dinosaur era”. For one thing, we don’t actually have any ancestral tuatara fossils from New Zealand dating back to the dinosaur era for comparison (the earliest tuatara fossil dates to a measly 16 mya), and recent studies have shown that many aspects of their morphology and biology are derived, making them just as “evolved” as any other species (but that’s the subject for another post).
So, although tuatara are the last member of an ancient reptile lineage, and still retain some morphological characteristics of these early reptiles, they are a completely different type of reptile from dinosaurs. Their ancestors lived alongside the dinosaurs, but so did the ancestors of modern-day turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and snakes.