The tuatara is a reptile endemic to New Zealand which, though it resembles most lizards, is part of a distinct lineage, order Rhynchocephalia. The two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of its order, which flourished around 200 million years ago. Their most recent common ancestor with any other extant group is with the squamates (lizards and snakes). For this reason, tuatara are of great interest in the study of the evolution of lizards and snakes, and for the reconstruction of the appearance and habits of the earliest diapsids (the group that also includes birds, dinosaurs, and crocodiles).
Tuatara are greenish brown and gray, and measure up to 80 cm (31 in) from head to tail-tip and weigh up to 1.3 kg (2.9 lb) with a spiny crest along the back, especially pronounced in males. Their dentition, in which two rows of teeth in the upper jaw overlap one row on the lower jaw, is unique among living species. They are further unusual in having a pronounced photoreceptive eye dubbed the "third eye", whose current function is a subject of ongoing research, but is thought to be involved in setting circadian and seasonal cycles. They are able to hear, although no external ear is present, and have a number of unique features in their skeleton, some of them apparently evolutionarily retained from fish. Although tuatara are sometimes called "living fossils", recent anatomical work has shown they have changed significantly since the Mesozoic era.
The name "tuatara" derives from the Māori language, and means "peaks on the back". As with many other Māori loanwords, the plural form is now generally the same as the singular in formal New Zealand English usage. "Tuataras" remains common in less formal speech, particularly among older speakers. The tuatara has been protected by law since 1895; the second species, S. guntheri, was not recognised until 1989. Tuatara, like many of New Zealand's native animals, are threatened by habitat loss and introduced predators, such as the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). They were extinct on the mainland, with the remaining populations confined to 32 offshore islands, until the first mainland release into the heavily fenced and monitored Karori Sanctuary in 2005.
During routine maintenance work at Karori Sanctuary in late 2008, a tuatara nest was uncovered, with a hatchling found the following autumn. This is thought to be the first case of tuatara successfully breeding on the New Zealand mainland in over 200 years, outside of captive rearing facilities.