Painful Truth: How long before the Tuatara’s 200 million year run ends?

In New Zealand, there’s a lizard that’s not a lizard, and so far it’s survived everything the world could throw at it. So far.

Have you ever seen a tuatara?

They don’t look like much. Pretty much like lizards. Wedge-shaped heads, big eyes, sprawled legs. They have low spines running down their backs, and fat, broad tails.

They’re not lizards. They’re reptiles, sure, but they split from lizards and snakes around 200 million years ago. They’re members of a tiny little family of critters that just kept trucking along through extinction event after extinction event. By the modern era, they only lived in New Zealand.

They’re weird. They have spinal bones shaped like a fish’s vertebrae. They have a well-developed third eye on the top of their head just after they’re hatched. They have no true teeth – just sharp jutting extensions of their jawbones, that are worn down and not replaced, so that an old tuatara is a toothless tuatara.

Tuatara are pretty neat.

We discovered them, then promptly almost wiped them out.

(This is a sentence that you can save and re-use for a wide variety of animals, plants, environments, cultures, etc.)

Today there are thousands of tuatara, but they only exist on small, isolated islands off the coasts. Specifically, they only live on islands not invaded by rats and dogs.

Even before humans developed an industrial civilization, we were destructive. We like to talk about “invasive” species as if they just happened to show up, but they’re really “introduced” species. We traveled the world in dugout canoes and triremes and tall ships, and everywhere we went we took rats and starlings and zebra mussels and pigs and dogs and rabbits and foxes.

Humans are special. We are destruction and wisdom in a single package, and there’s not one sainted soul among us who can separate the two strands.

Humans are special. We’re the only disaster that can see itself coming. We’re a tornado that knows the difference between the snapping of fenceposts and the snapping of limbs.

Humans are special. We can halt our downhill rush towards destruction.

Perhaps.

The tuatara lives, despite the rats and dogs and the humans, all of whom will happily eat a fat-tailed lizard-looking thing if they’re hungry.

But for how long? Human society is inherently unstable. There has never been a year in recorded history that a war was not taking place somewhere. How long before we bust things up good, and we’re back to sitting on little islands, hungry and looking for a meal.

We might pull back out of that future tailspin, right our course. But will the tuatara be there, when we do?

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