Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) are New Zealand endemic, cold-adapted reptiles and the sole extant representatives of the order Rhynchocephalia. Once widespread throughout New Zealand, the introduction of mammalian predators resulted in their extirpation from the mainland and restriction to predator-free offshore islands. Translocations to reintroduce and extend the range of tuatara have been essential to their conservation. In October 2012, several unprecedented large-scale translocations moved 220 adult tuatara from Stephen’s Island in New Zealand’s Cook Strait to four North Island sanctuaries. It is unknown how movement outside of their ecological region and associated changes in climate might affect these animals and their susceptibility to potentially harmful pathogens. In the face of rising global temperatures understanding the impact of a shift in climate on the health of a cold-adapted reptile is a high conservation priority.
Salmonella and Campylobacter are enteric, zoonotic bacteria that can cause illness in reptiles. Despite presence in other fauna and the environment, previous attempts to detect Salmonella in tuatara have been negative, suggesting that they may be innately resistant or that their low body temperatures may not support bacterial proliferation. Similarly, Campylobacter prevelance was equivocal. To investigate prevalence, cloacal swabs were taken from tuatara at study sites. Analyses involved selective culturing, serotyping and PCR. As a result, this research has identified Salmonella saintpaul in a translocated tuatara, indicating that this species is able to carry this bacteria. Preliminary Campylobacter results suggest that prevalence may range between 57% and 100% of sampled individuals, suggesting that Campylobacter could be considered commensal in tuatara. A final set of samples is currently being obtained for analysis in Autumn 2015. This work provides critical information to inform the conservation of a species of evolutionary and cultural significance, as well as testing for shifts in a reptilian bacterial community under increased environmental temperature.