As a femur-shaped island paradise that snapped away from the Gondwana supercontinent some 80 million years ago, New Zealand is famously home to eccentric forms of wildlife that look like pets for a Hobbit.
There is the kiwi, of course, with its dense, furlike feathers, its catlike whiskers and its long, slender, curving bill tipped by a pair of ultrasensitive nostrils; and the kakapo, a heavy, flightless, nocturnal parrot with the flat-cheeked face of an owl; and the giant weta, a cricket the size of a human hand that displays by waving its formidably serrated rear legs high in the air as if brandishing a pair of saws.
Yet the animal that may well be New Zealand’s most bizarrely instructive species at first glance looks surprisingly humdrum: the tuatara. A reptile about 16 inches long with bumpy, khaki-colored skin and a lizardly profile, the tuatara could easily be mistaken for an iguana. Appearances in this case are wildly deceptive. The tuatara — whose name comes from the Maori language and means “peaks on the back” — is not an iguana, is not a lizard, is not like any other reptile alive today.