Explore the features of some of our most endangered reptiles and the recovery programmes, techniques and technology that is helping them survive.

This teaching resource explore the habitats of our rare McRaes Flat skink, Chevron skink, Duvaucel's gecko and Jewelled gecko and how they have responded to environmental changes.

Decide if their adaptive features are helping or hindering the lizards' survival and explore the consequences of rats on our pest free islands.

Students look at the Head Start programme for the tuatara and assess and make suggestions for the recovery programme.

About the resource

Learning levels

  • Primary
  • Secondary 


  • Native animals

Curriculum learning areas

  • Science (Living world)
  • Social science
  • Technology
  • Education for sustainablility

Achievement objectives

  • Students will explain how living things are suited to their particular habitat and how they respond to environmental changes both natural and human induced.
  • Students will understand how people make decisions about access to and use of resources. 

Learning outcomes

  • Students will recognise the special features of skinks and geckos and describe them to their classmates.
  • Students will locate the Otago skinks habitat on a map, identify the changes to their environment that limit their presence and match a threat to management tool designed minimise their threats.
  • Students will identify the special features and adaptations of the chevron skink and hypothesise as to whether these features are helping or hindering their survival.
  • Students will explore the likelihood of rats getting established on Great and Little Barrier Island and design a poster or pamphlet for boaties that gets the "no rats" message across. Plan a distribution method too.
  • Students will share some research about the breeding habits of the jewelled gecko and hypothesise in pairs as to how these features can help its survival.
  • Students will examine the adaptive features of jewelled geckos and incorporate these features in an action pastel and dye artwork.
  • Students will construct a lizard friendly environment at home or school and photograph it for others to see and learn from.
  • Students will examine the tuatara hatching and raising programme at Victoria University and list items needed if they were part of the team for the very first egg recovery and raising operation.
  • Students will write a diary that illustrates the Head Start process from collection, to incubation, hatching, rearing and release.
  • Students will use de Bono's coloured hats to assess strategies designed to protect the tuatara and build populations on their islands.

View the resource

DOC and TVNZ collaborated to create the "NZ Biology: The reptiles resource" which was written by DOC ranger Mike Tapp.

Contents of resource:

 Is it a fish, amphibian or reptile?

Check your students' knowledge with this activity for pairs or small groups. Download the worksheet Where do we fit? (PDF, 45K) from the TVNZ website.


  • Fish - 4,5,10 sharks trout, eels, rays, kahawai, lampreys and catfish;
  • Amphibians - 3,5,6,7,8 frogs, toads, axolotls;
  • Reptiles - 1,2,5,9 dinosaurs, turtles, tortoises, tuatara, lizards, snakes and crocodiles.

Otago's skinks

Download A Changing Habitat for Otago's Skinks worksheet (PDF, 77K) from the TVNZ website. This worksheet shows students just how much the environment changed and why it changed.

Check out a map to see where lizards used to live compared to now. Then watch the Meet the Locals episode Grand and Otago skinks (McRaes Flat) and try the adaptation activity in the worksheet.

These facts about grand and Otago skinks should help as will the three below:

  • These giants are only found in Otago where they are active in the sunshine and live among deeply creviced schist rock outcrops in montane tussock grassland.
  • The two species are seen together at some sites but Otago skinks are found more often on extensive rock bluffs along steep-sided valleys. The grand skinks are more common on ridge-top rocky pinnacles.
  • They usually stay around their rock surfaces but both species sometimes make long trips between habitat patches - up to 400m for grand skinks and 2km for Otago skinks.

4. The endangered classification for these skinks is nationally critical and population modelling once suggested "functional extinction" of both species by 2010.

Management programmes utilise a range of tools. The worksheet Minimise the threat (PDF, 47K) on the TVNZ website has students matching each threat to a management tool and deciding how it can help the skinks survive.

The chevron skink

This skink is New Zealand biggest lizard and is only found on Little Barrier and Great Barrier Islands. Historical records show this skink was once on the mainland but Norway rats helped clean them out. Both animals like to occupy the same habitat but Rattus norvegicus, are quick to eat their flatmates.

Watch the Meet the Locals episode Chevron skink taking special note of how secretive and well camouflaged these lizards are. Look closely at the skinks' preferred habit and the teenager without a tail.

After the video, think, pair and then share ideas in class for the question:

  • Why do lizards lose their tail?


  • Lizards have throwaway tails to escape from predators.
  • Nervous spasms make a newly dropped lizard tail wag around as if it's alive.
  • This headless twitching "animal" startles predators and in the confusion the lizard escapes - minus a tail but often unharmed.
  • Original tails are made of bony vertebrae but the shock of the loss jumpstarts cells to build new tail out of cartilage.
  • Tail building uses up a lot of energy and as lizards get older their tails actually become less colorful and less attractive to predators.
  • Geckos like the jewelled gecko climb around in trees and use their tail like another leg. They will drop their tail if necessary but the one that grows back is never as long or as handy as the original.
  • Lizards store their food in their tails so if they drop off in winter when there is less food around they could be in for a hard time.

Niho Taniwha - the chevron skink worksheet (PDF, 48K) on the TVNZ website looks at the special features of the chevron skinks and in pairs students can decide whether these features are helping or hindering their survival. Each pair can share ideas with another pair before reaching a class agreement.

Norway rats

The rats are laughing (PDF, 119K) worksheet on the TVNZ website focuses in on Norway rats and the possibility and consequences of these predators getting established on Little and Great Barrier Islands. There's every chance the rats would wipe the chevron skink out as the crafty rodents would slink along the same damp pathways.

Get your students to read the information on The rats are laughing worksheet

The jewelled gecko

Share these points with your students and decide which ones are problems that could be wholly or partly solved.

  • The jewelled gecko is endemic to New Zealand, so it's the only place it occurs naturally.
  • Jewelled geckos live in the south-eastern part of the South Island, east of the Southern Alps and from mid- Canterbury south to Stewart Island. The biggest populations live on Banks Peninsula near Christchurch and the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin.
  • Loss of habitat is the biggest threat, followed by rats and other introduced predators. Most of the habitat loss comes with clearing of forest and scrubland for farms.
  • Because of the slow breeding rate, gecko populations are slow to recover in regenerating forests, and sometimes never do.
  • This attractive gecko is also appealing to the illegal pet market.
  • Jewelled geckos are masters of camouflage and are very difficult to find.
  • DOC classifies these geckos as a threatened species with humans responsible for their gradual decline.

Watch the Meet the Locals episode Jewelled geckos. Look closely at the adaptations this lizard has that help protect it.

Find out too what Shirleen Helps, the woman in the video has done on her farm to protect these little lizards.

8. Share the information below with your students and then try the think, pair and share questions.

  • Jewelled geckos breed annually. They mate in September and October and give birth in May or June. Gestation is usually 8 to 9 months but geckos can delay fertilisation.
  • New Zealand geckos are the only ones in the world to give birth to live young but the birth process is a little different to most mammals. The baby geckos develop in the eggs which remain in the oviduct until they hatch prior to birth.
  • Geckos usually have twins and each one is nearly half the length of the mother at birth. The young stay with their parents, but the parents don't really look after them. They fend for themselves!

Think, pair and share your ideas.

(a) Which of the features just described, help this lizard survive? 
(b) Why do geckos in New Zealand give birth to live young when geckos in other countries hatch from eggs?


(a) Adaptive features include:

  • breeding annually so the population is topped up
  • delaying fertilisation may happen when the food supply is low
  • and the geckos' size at birth helps them look after themselves.

(b) Researchers think the live births are most likely due to the need to keep developing geckos warm in the cool climate.

9. These ten amazing photos of jewelled geckos are well worth looking at.

Again, check out those adaptive features:

  • Markings that let them hide in the shadows of leaves
  • Long clawed toes to climb
  • A long tail to hang wrap around branches (The replacement is never quite as good as the original so they don't drop tails as readily as skinks.)
  • Loose and grainy skin
  • A body that lets them lunge quickly at prey
  • A mouth that lets them catch their prey.

The Jewelled gecko worksheet (PDF, 48K) on the TVNZ website asks students to show these adaptations in an artwork. Pastel and dye is good but crayon and dye will be just as effective.

The adaptations are listed in boxes under separate headings and the idea is to include something from every box in the picture. Strive for a picture that gives information without words.

Handy hints:

  • It's an action picture. It's a lizard on the go in its habitat!
  • Draft out the sketch first in pen on an A5 piece of paper.
  • If the gecko is tiny draw a box around it and tell your student to blow that bit up big.
  • Sketch your drawing on cartridge paper using chalk or a light crayon. Don't use pencil because time will be spent drawing fine bits that can't be replicated with crayon or pastel. Students will also spend more time rubbing out than thinking about their art.
  • When using crayon or pastel put a thick wad of newspaper under the cartridge for a better texture.
  • Colour from the inside out and avoid lines around shapes. Only colouring in books have those.
  • Look for detail in the gecko and surroundings. Bring in some likely plants for observation.
  • Most of the artwork should be in crayon or pastel. The dye will be the highlight.
  • The bigger the better - A3 at least!

10. The worksheet Bring in the lizards (PDF, 464K) on the TVNZ website describes ways of attracting lizard to gardens. The students could try the ideas at home or if you have a likely area at school, adapt the ideas for a lizard lifestyle at school.

Lizard friendly gardens and homes are easy to make and can make a difference. The little reptiles will hide and escape from the cats! If your students do make a lizard home in their backyard get them to photograph it for others to see.


This living fossil has hardly changed from the dinosaur days 220 million years ago but life's been tough since humans and their rats arrived. Tuatara were once found all over New Zealand but now they only live on offshore islands. It was one of the first species to be protected by law and that was in1895.

Karori Sanctuary Trust in Wellington has them - the first wild (or semi-wild) population to be established on the mainland since they became extinct over 200 years ago.

The last of the reptile videos looks at the programmes aimed at keeping tuatara in a healthy state. After all, their orderSphenodontia, was represented by many species during the age of the dinosaurs but they all became extinct about 60 million years ago. Except that is for old tuatara!

Tuatara are reptiles but not lizards. Their skull, ribs, teeth, the third eye and the way they mate makes them different.

12. Now watch the Meet the Locals episode Tuatara. You'll find out about the Head Start programme at Auckland Zoo which is a little like Operation Nestegg for the kiwi.

Have the students consider this question as they watch:

  • What makes the tuatara such a good animal for a research, breeding and relocation programme like this?

13. Download the Tuatara babies (PDF, 55K) worksheet from the TVNZ website. This worksheet examines the hatching and raising programme at Victoria University.

As an activity the students are asked to list the things they would need if they were part of the team for the very first expedition to the islands to collect eggs and what they'd need to raise the tuatara back in Wellington. They then write a diary that shows the progress and tasks from collection, to incubation, hatching, rearing and release.

14. Share this information about tuatara eggs in the wild:

  • Laying months: October/November.
  • Nesting place: Open areas in nesting rookeries.
  • Nest type: Little chambers or blind tunnels.
  • Mum's job: Build the nesting tunnel and fill it with loose soil. Lay the eggs, leave and don't return.
  • Incubation: 12 to 15 months depending on the temperature.
  • Hatching success rate: 40% compared to 80% in the laboratory.

Now that the students know about hatching eggs in the laboratory see if they can come up with a plan, or piece of equipment for increasing the hatching success rate of eggs left on the islands.

Ponder this! 
The adult male/female hatching ratio can get skewed and end up with a population that includes a lot more males than females. A change in temperature of even one degree may determine the baby's sex. In an incubator, 18 degrees produces females while 22 degrees hatches mostly males.

There's a worry that global warming will contribute to a male dominated population. You may need to give your students this handy hint before they embark on their hatching scheme.

15. The second tuatara video looks at a tuatara release on Cuvier Island.

Many of these rat free islands have very little forest to provide compost and food for earthworms, slaters and soil insects. Seabirds do the job instead.

Bird droppings and dead leaves are dug into the soil by burrowing seabirds. Thousands of seabirds help the tuatara by building the rich soil for plants to grow in and for invertebrates to make their homes.

In pairs get the students to design a diagram that shows a food chain on rat free island made up of these things:

  • forest birds
  • seabirds
  • lizards
  • tuatara
  • spiders
  • insects
  • earthworms
  • slaters
  • weta
  • beetles
  • seabird manure
  • plant life

Now introduce rats to the island and ask, "How might your diagram change?"

15. Use de Bono's coloured hats, (explained below) before watching the Meet the Locals episode Tuatara release. This video shows the next stage in repopulating the islands with tuatara. It's a good preparation for the final activity.

Explain the young tuatara are about to be released on an island. In groups put on the:

  • White hat and decide what we need to know.
  • Yellow hat and decide the good points about the idea. What are the benefits?
  • Black hat and decide if there are any bad points that mean it may not work.
  • Red hat and take a guess. What do you think might happen?

Now watch the Meet the Locals episode Tuatara release.

16. For the final activity download the Tuatara strategies worksheet (PDF, 88K) from the TVNZ website. Students use the coloured hats to assess strategies designed to protect the tuatara and build populations on their island. Share these ideas in class to finish the unit.


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