Victoria’s resident tuatara on the move

A special event has been held to welcome Victoria University of Wellington’s resident tuatara to a new enclosure in the University’s newly constructed science building.

The Te Toki a Rata building adds 12,500m2 of teaching and research facilities to Kelburn campus, and is officially opening to students in February next year.

As staff in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences move to their new offices and laboratories in the Te Toki a Rata building, so too do the tuatara that live at the University.

“It’s very exciting,” says Associate Professor Nicola Nelson, one of the tuatara handlers.

“The new enclosure has been designed to have all the components that we think keep tuatara happy—dappled sunlight, plants, burrows and heat lamps.

“We want the transition to be as easy as possible for the animals. We’ll be watching their behaviour carefully and staging their move to ensure it’s not stressful and they have time to become familiar with their new home.”

A number of iwi attended the welcoming event at the Te Toki a Rata enclosure, including representatives from Ngāti Koata and Te Ātiawa—the kaitiaki (guardians) of the tuatara.

Louisa Paul of Ngāti Koata says the iwi see tuatara like their children.

“Just because they no longer live on the island on which they were born, doesn’t mean that the connection to that island disappears. We use the saying ‘I ōu wāhi kotoa, kei reira hoki ahau—where ever you are I am also’—which is on a sign at the new tuatara enclosure at Victoria. We ensure we keep a relationship with the tuatara and we are always tied together.”

Victoria’s tuatara have been based in their current enclosure in the Murphy building since 1996. Four adult tuatara inhabit the enclosure—Spike (male), Hazel, Shorty and Phoebe (female).

The tuatara have donated samples to various student research projects over the years for studies investigating hormone and vitamin levels. These activities require permits from the Department of Conservation and consultation with iwi. All work with the tuatara is also covered by animal ethics permits.

The University incubates tuatara eggs as part of conservation programmes around the country. In 2014, extremely rare footage of a tuatara egg hatching at Victoria was captured.

Associate Professor Nelson says the presence of tuatara on campus is a delight for students, staff and visitors.

“They’re a fascinating species. Spike is our ‘ambassador’ tuatara, and we take him to presentations to school and other groups so that members of the public can learn about conservation through a close-up encounter. People love them.”