A lizard-like reptile which survived the demise of the dinosaurs and now lives only in New Zealand has given birth for the first time in captivity outside its homeland – in an incubator at Chester Zoo.
If you thought it was difficult for pandas to breed in captivity, spare a thought for tuataras. They take 20 years to reach sexual maturity, come into breeding condition once every four years, and seem to live in perpetual slow motion – which is not such a problem if your life expectancy is 120 years.
However, after four decades of trying, Chester’s specialist keeper Isolde McGeorge can now claim to be Britain’s first midwife for the tuatara, an ancient reptile that flourished on almost every continent 220 million years ago, until that is it became extinct everywhere except New Zealand.
At the end of last year, the first tuatara hatchling emerged from its egg after an incubation period of 238 days, lovingly – if nervously – supervised by Ms McGeorge, 58, who has been trying to breed this enigmatic species at Chester ever since she began looking after them in 1977.
“I’ve had a long and fruitful career at the zoo, including the birth of Komodo dragons, but nothing is going to top this. It has always been one of my goals to breed tuataras, and now we’ve got there after watching this egg for every spare moment,” Ms McGeorge said.
“Tuataras are notoriously difficult to breed, and it’s probably fair to say that I know that better than most as it has taken me 38 years to get here,” she said.
“It’s taken lots of hard work, lots of stressful moments and lots of tweaking of the conditions in which we keep the animals along the way – but it has all been very much worth it,” she added.
Although tuataras look like lizards they actually belong to a separate reptilian order called the Rhynchocephalia which were once dominant on land until all but one species, tuataras, died out. A curious feature of their anatomy is a “third eye” in the centre of their forehead which is no longer used for vision but may have some role in detecting ultraviolet light.
“Tuatara lived before the dinosaurs, they lived with the dinosaurs and they survived after the dinosaurs had died out. They really are a living fossil and an evolutionary wonder,” Ms McGeorge said.
She has only twice witnessed the extraordinary courtship dance of male tuataras, when they circle the females with the head crests erect while performing a stiff-leg walk called a “stolzer gang”, after the straight-leg marching of German soldiers. This particular pairing at Chester, between a male called Pixie and a female called Mustard, took about 12 years to arrange before it ended with the mother producing two eggs.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/20 'Tiny vampires' existed millions of years ago
Scientists have discovered that microscopic 'vampire' amoebae existed hundreds of millions of years ago, and they may have been some of the first predators on Earth. By examining ancient fossils with an electron microscope, paleobiologist Susannah Porter from UC Santa Barbara discovered tiny holes which may have been drilled by vampiric microbes. The tiny creatures are believed to be the ancestors of modern Vampyrellidae amoebae, and punctured holes in their prey before sucking out the contents of their cells
2/20 Kepler 62f
An Earth-like planet orbiting a star 1,200 light years away could have conditions suitable for life, say scientists. Kepler 62f is about 40 per cent larger than the Earth and may possess surface oceans. It is the outermost of five planets circling a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun discovered by the American space agency Nasa's Kepler space telescope in 2013
3/20 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
4/20 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
5/20 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
6/20 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
7/20 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
8/20 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
9/20 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
10/20 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
11/20 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
12/20 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
13/20 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
14/20 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
15/20 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
16/20 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
17/20 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
18/20 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
19/20 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
20/20 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
“When you’ve worked with tuatara for as long as I have you come to realise that they don’t do anything in a hurry. Their metabolism is incredibly slow. They take just five breaths and just six to eight heart beats per minute, and they only reproduce every four years with their eggs taking a year to hatch,” Ms McGeorge said.
Once inseminated, the female secretively laid her eggs in sand far from her home burrow. As it was all done at night – tuataras are nocturnal – this made life even more difficult for Ms McGeorge, who nevertheless managed to put both eggs in an incubator where the ambient temperature was carefully controlled to stay between 18C and 22C.
“The night before it hatched, I spotted two beads of sweat on one of the eggs. I had a feeling something incredible was about to happen and so I raced in early the next day and there she was,” she said.
“Immediately, I broke down in tears. I was completely overwhelmed by what we had achieved. Now that we have all of the key factors in place, the challenge is to repeat our success and to do it again and again.”
The baby tuatara was born in early December but Chester Zoo has only now decided to make the birth public. The zoo is about to be the focus of a Channel 4 documentary series, The Secret Life of the Zoo, where Ms McGeorge and her colleagues are filmed as they go about their conservation work in captive breeding.
As for the baby tuatara, the Chester Zoo team has named it “baby Isolde” after Ms McGeorge – although there is still an outside chance that the new arrival could turn out to be male.
* Scientific name: Sphenodon punctatus.
* Tuatara are the last surviving members of the order Rhynchocephalia, or beak-heads. These ancient reptiles once flourished as long ago as 225 million years, before dinosaurs.
* About 70 million years ago, the species became extinct everywhere except New Zealand.
* One of the most curious body parts of the tuatara is a “third eye” on the top of its head. The “eye” has a retina, cornea, a lens and nerve endings, yet it is not used for seeing.
* Tuatara do not reach sexual maturity until they are around 20 years old.
* Tuatara are the only reptile that do not have a penis, instead they mate like birds.
* In courtship, males circle the females before their crest becomes erect, leading to the performance of a “stolzer gang” – a stiff-legged walk.
* Scientists estimate that they can live for up to 120 years.
* Chester Zoo has seven tuatara – one male, five females and the as yet unsexed newcomer.
* The egg from which the youngster hatched was laid on 11 April. It hatched on 5 December.
* Chester Zoo first began caring for tuatara in 1962.
The Secret Life of the Zoo begins on 2 February on Channel 4Reuse content