"These tuatara lizards which are being kept under observation at the Auckland War Memorial Museum were discovered lying immersed in ice-cold rain water which had collected in a clam shell on the roof of the building. They remained immersed for several hours."


The Mystery of the Tuatara living at the Museum

Grace Yee

The Mystery of the Tuatara living at the Museum

When visiting the Museum to see the diversity of animal life, we find ourselves surrounded by the dead: skeletons, taxidermies, and animals preserved in alcohol. It is rare to find a living specimen at the Museum, although, in the 1930s to early 1940s, Tāmaki Paenga Hira had three of its very own living tuatara. However, these tuatara were not on display at the Museum but were kept under observation on the roof of the Museum by Mr. A. B. W. Powell, a conchologist at the Museum.

With little information about these elusive tuatara in the Museum’s records and often opposing information in past newspaper clippings, these tuatara are left shrouded in mystery.

From the information available from our records and past newspaper clippings, it could be pieced together that there were three tuatara living on the roof of the Museum, with one female having laid 4–5 eggs in 1942, which never reached the hatching stage. The names of two of the tuatara were ‘Mussolini’, who was introduced during a lecture given by Mr. R. A. Falla at the Auckland Museum in 1930, and ‘Percy’, who by 1935 had been under observation for 13 years.

“Having described the life and habits of this interesting creature, Mr. Falla introduced to the audience a captive tuatara of a rather taciturn appearance, which proudly bored the name of ‘Mussolini.” This specimen, which had not been fed since April, had been awakened from his winter sleep a week previously in preparation for lecture, and displayed a considerable amount of activity. At every strange noise his head was raised and if his curiosity was not then satisfied he executed a series of quick gyrations attributed by the lecturer to the excitement resulting from his strange surroundings. It was an inspiring performance (says the Herald).”


"Snails appeal irresistibly to tuataras. Maintaining a supply is a simple matter, however, for a tuatara considers he has dined handsomely if he is given one snail a day. The specimen receiving the attention of museum experts should be accustomed to observation by now, for his habits have been watched for 13 years. This would seem to be a disturbingly long absence from his natural haunts, but a tuatara has ample time for reflection. It is estimated that a tuatara who follows without serious interference his natural preferences of eating sparingly and sleeping from April until the approach of spring, can live for 300 years."


It's not known exactly where these tuatara came from, and when they arrived at the Museum. It is noted in Museum records that two died in 1937, and the last in 1942. However, several past newspaper articles have suggested tuatara had been given to Auckland Museum in 1914, 1915, and in 1944. These included a one-eyed tuatara that was confiscated by the police in Paeroa, a tuatara found in a drain at the back of a house on Nelson St, and a young tuatara found by Albert Borough Council while excavating a drain in Fairlie Avenue, Auckland, however, this last individual cannot be found in the Museum’s records.

These inconsistencies and missing information on these tuatara highlight the importance of recording accurate data for the longevity of the specimen in our collections and to provide information for future generations, with every detail providing more colour to the rich story of each specimen or object. Inaccurate recording of data can cause issues further down the line with future cataloguers having to do extensive research into finding inconsistencies and trying to remedy these whilst avoiding potentially changing accurate data. This reinforces the need for better data collection and recording, which is not an uncommon problem in older records but even now some specimens are donated to the Museum with little information provided, lacking details on where and when it was found. Although we do love a mystery, we love to solve a mystery more.

This work was done as part of the IDEA project to enhance the Museum’s records on the herpetology collection.

The rooftop tuatara and four of their eggs that failed to reach hatching stage are now part of Auckland Museum’s herpetology collection. These specimens are an important resource for scientific researchers to study the anatomy and taxonomy of tuatara, and to benchmark against any potential changes in the species over time.

Museums are one of the few places extinct or endangered species can be studied without the need to collect more specimens from the wild or to disturb their natural behaviours and environment.

Well recorded and maintained collections of species within museums are an important tool for scientific researchers to be able to engage with these resources effectively and accurately. The IDEA project (Improved documentation enhanced access) is a three-year project at Auckland Museum aiming to digitise over 80,000 of the Museum's 4.5 million items, shedding new light on the country's largest collection of specimens, objects, and archival documents.

For more information on this project, read the blog by project coordinator Ian Proctor here.

About the author

Grace Yee (she/her) is a Collection Technician, Entomology and Botany for the IDEA Project at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum. Grace has a background in Wildlife Management, Herpetology and Stable Isotope Ecology. 



Header and first image: New Zealand Herald, Volume LXXIII, Issue 22471, 15 July 1936, Page 10, via Papers Past.

Second Image & Blog thumbnail image: Tuatara lizard in the Auckland Museum, 1940. Courtesy of Auckland Libraries Heritage Images Collection via DigitalNZ.

Third Image: Tuatara lizard in the Auckland Museum, 1940. Courtesy of Auckland Libraries Heritage Images Collection via DigitalNZ.


Life of the Tuatara. Manawatu Herald, Volume LI, Issue 4515, 9 October 1930, Page 4.

Week-end in Auckland. Northern Advocate, 3 September 1935, Page 4.

Tuataras Waken. Manawatu Standard, Volume LV, Issue 221, 17 August 1935, Page 13.

Local and General. Taranaki Daily News, Volume LVI, Issue 201, 23 February 1914, Page 4.

Table Talk. Auckland Star, Volume XLV, Issue 41, 17 February 1914, Page 1.

Accidents and Fatalities. Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XLVII, Issue XLVIII, 7 April 1915, Page 5.

News of the Day: Young Tuatara Found. Auckland Star, Volume LXXV, Issue 187, 9 August 1944, Page 4.

Nine Eggs Laid. Waikato Times, Volume 126, Issue 21040, 16 February 1940, Page 7.

Tuatara Lizard Found. Evening Post, Volume Cxxxviii, Issue 35, 10 August 1944, Page 6.

New Zealand Herald, Volume Lxxiii, Issue 22471, 15 July 1936, Page 10 

Biological Study. Auckland Star, Volume Lxvii, Issue 193, 15 August 1936, Page 10.

A New Zealand Reptile, Otago Witness, Issue 3594, 30 January 1923, Page 7.

New Zealand Herald, Volume LXXIII, Issue 22471, 15 July 1936, Page 10.