Tuatara hatching caught on film

Extremely rare footage of a tuatara hatching has been filmed at Victoria University of Wellington. 

Last to hatch, the egg was one of 23 being incubated in captivity this year as part of a joint initiative that helped save the threatened tuatara population from extinction.

Since the early 1990s, the university, the Department of Conservation (DoC) and local Mana Whenua Ngati Manuhiri have run an intensive conservation recovery plan for tuatara on Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island.

Hauturu o Toi is a nature reserve on the island, which is now home to about 300 tuatara, most of which have been incubated at Victoria University.

Using a low-cost micro-computer and infrared camera, Warren Butcher from the university's Image Services team filmed seven hours of footage and then compressed it into a short video clip.

Butcher worked with Sue Keall, a technician at Victoria's School of Biological Sciences, as the team searched day and night for tuatara.

"Amazingly we found four tuatara in a week on that first trip. Everyone was surprised and a disused aviary had to be adapted to house them, with the longer-term view that they would remain in captivity on the island for their own safety, pending an agreement to eradicate Pacific rats from the island," Keall said.

Professor Charles Daugherty, the university's Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Research), led the conservation initiative as part of a wider joint Victoria and DoC study of the 30 known tuatara populations, all on islands around New Zealand.

The Little Barrier population was of special interest as it occupied by far the largest island on which tuatara had possibly survived, and was the only island with kauri forest and other habitats common on mainland New Zealand, Daugherty said. However, no tuatara had been seen on the island between 1981 and 1991, and the population was believed to be extinct.

Nicky Nelson, an associate professor in Victoria's School of Biological Sciences and Principal Investigator with the Allan Wilson Centre, joined a second trip where the teams found four more tuatara. Shortly after, a purpose built 'tuatarium' enclosure was built to house the four male and four female tuatara.

Over the years, the tuatara laid eggs that were sent to the university to be incubated and hatched. The young tuatara were then returned to Little Barrier to be reared in a 'headstart' programme, where they were kept in special enclosures, safe from Pacific rats.

Since the rats were eradicated from the island in 2006, juvenile tuatara hatched at the university have been able to be released into the wild on the island.

"For the Little Barrier population, this programme stopped their near certain extinction in the presence of kiore, and boosted their recovery by increasing the numbers more quickly than could have happened naturally," Keall said.

The tuatara caught on video is the 255th to be hatched at Victoria as part of the programme.

The Dominion Post