Netflix’s “Leo” | All About the Tuatara That Inspired the Movie
“Leo” is an animated kids film that was released on Netflix on November 17th, 2023. The main character, Leo, voiced by Adam Sandler, is a 74-year old tuatara that has lived at Fort Myers Elementary School for the past several decades as a class pet. His charming personality and quest to discover himself in his golden years has captivated fans of the film and perhaps left watchers wanting to know more about the unique animal that inspired the movie - the tuatara.
What is a Tuatara?
Tuatara are rare reptiles endemic to New Zealand. Although they resemble lizards, they are actually the last surviving member of the order Rhynchocephalia, which thrived in the Mesozonic age, between 66 million to 252 million years ago.
Although they used to be found on the two main islands of New Zealand, invasive Polynesian rats eliminated their population from the mainland decades ago. They are now reduced to sanctuaries and smaller populations found on 32 smaller coastal islands.
How Long Do Tuatara Really Live?
In the movie, Leo overhears a parent saying that Tuatara live 75 years. After discussing with other class pets, Leo comes to the conclusion that he is 74 years old and may only have another year left to live.
Wild tuatara live on average 60 years, and take 35 years to reach adult size, but can live to be over 100! In captivity, tuatara frequently live over 100 years, and are thought to be able to reach 200+.
Tuatara are unique in that they take 10 to 20 YEARS to reach sexual maturity, and breeding only occurs once every 4 years - the longest span of time for any reptile species. One individual named Henry even fathered offspring at 111 years of age!
Can You Own A Tuatara As A Pet?
No, you cannot own a tuatara as a pet.
Tuatara are highly protected species and it is not legal to export them from New Zealand. Even if owning them was possible, their care requirements are extremely unique.
Although the movie portrays Leo in a small glass tank cohabiting with his turtle roommate, this is not how a tuatara would survive. In fact, studies have shown that tuatara cannot thrive over 77ºƒ. Even in the coolest months, the average high temperature in the Florida Everglades exceeds the ideal range for tuatara.
Does Anyone Own A Tuatara? Where Can I See A Tuatara?
Only four zoos in the United States currently have tuatara, and only two of the four have them on public display.
You can visit Tuatara at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio or at the Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas. The San Diego Zoo and San Francisco Zoo in California have conservation programs for tuatara that are not open to the public.
In New Zealand, tuatara can be observed at several sanctuaries and nature reserves, though exact location of several tuatara areas are not disclosed.
Are Tuatara Lizards? / Why Are Tuatara Not Lizards?
Although tuatara may look like lizards - they are not.
Tuatara do not have external ears, they are active in cold temperatures, and they are nocturnal. All of these are unlike lizards, who have external ear structures, are active in warmer temperatures, and are diurnal (most active during the day). In fact, genetic research revealed that tuatara have the lowest optimal body temperature of any reptile - 60-70ºƒ (16ºc - 21ºc)
Scientific genome research revealed that the tuatara genome is two-thirds bigger than humans, and “unusually large” for a reptile. Genetic analysis revealed that tuarata are more closely related to lizards and snakes than turtles, crocodilians, and birds and diverged from snakes and lizards 250 million years ago - which means the tuatara predates even the oldest dinosaurs!
Are Tuatara Endangered?
Tuatara have fluctuated between “At-Risk” and “Vulnerable” status.. However, the IUCN Red List recently marked them as “Least Concern” thanks to successful conservation efforts restoring populations to an estimated 50-100,000 animals.
In 1895, the Tuatara became one of New Zealand's first native reptiles to be protected by law. Today, scientists fear for the long term survival of the species due to threats of invasive animals, small gene pool, and habitat destruction, yet conservation efforts have allowed a steady increase in population. In order to maintain conservation efforts, four techniques are currently being used: mammal eradication from offshore islands, head start and egg incubation programs; where tuatara eggs are collected from the wild hatched in a laboratory setting where young tuatara are raised until a less vulnerable size before being released, and translocation programs where tuatara are transported to new areas to establish new populations or restore existing numbers.
A Note on Cohabitation and Proper Care
As you probably realize by now, any new lovers of tuatara will not be acquiring one any time soon. The movie portrays Leo and his box turtle “roommate” Squirtle being cohabbed in a minimally decorated aquarium. Although this is an animated movie, it is important to realize our responsibility to research the species we are caring for and ensure that we are providing them with the best care we can possibly provide. Cute reptile “friendships” can be left to the movie screen where they belong.
This is a great opportunity to discuss the dangers of cohabitation. Even for peaceful species, being confined together in an enclosure where they cannot adequately have their own space can cause stress, which can result in illness, injury, and even death.
We can see an example of this by looking at the basic requirements of tuatara and box turtles. Tuatara cannot thrive over 77ºƒ, and box turtles require a basking spot of 85-90ºƒ. You can see how this would quickly become dangerous to keep two species with wildly different care requirements in the same enclosure together. One animal will always be given the wrong care, even if one animal has care within ideal parameters.
There are very few instances where cohabbing reptiles truly benefits the reptile, and countless others where the effects can be detrimental. Most species of reptile do not benefit from the presence of other reptiles or even members of their own species in their space. These solitary animals do not form bonds, make friends, or form lifelong relationships like people. Please research the species you are looking into and provide them with an appropriate, safe enclosure where they can live peacefully in their own space.
To learn more about amazing reptiles, check out our other articles here!
Sources and further reading:
- Gemmell et al. The tuatara genome reveals ancient features of amniote evolution. Nature. Published online August 5, 2020. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2561-9.