Chameleons in Madagascar facts
Chameleons, along with lemurs, can be found at the top of most Madagascar travellers’ must-see lists – and there is no better place to find them. Derek Schuurman offers his round-up of the remarkable species you should be looking for.
There is no better place in the world in which to see a wide variety of chameleons than Madagascar. The island is home to almost half of the world’s approximately 185 known species and counting, as exploration continues in its remaining forests and other habitats. They come in a fantastic variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Three genera of these fascinating lizards with their independently swivelling eyes are almost entirely endemic to Madagascar*: the mainly terrestrial and small ‘leaf’ or ‘stump-tailed’ Brookesia chameleons (34 species and sub-species, with more awaiting formal classification); the mostly rainforest-dwelling Calumma chameleons (34 species and sub-species), and the often highly sexually dichromatic Furcifer chameleons (19 species), most of which frequent the island’s drier habitat types.
The ‘typical’ chameleons (Furcifer and Calumma species) are predominantly arboreal and medium-sized to (sometimes very) large, with many sporting bright colouration. A number of species also have interesting and differently shaped appendages on their snouts, so when we compiled the first edition of the book Madagascar Wildlife: A Visitors Guide back in 1996, Hilary Bradt and I decided one of the themed photo spreads had to be a compilation of the most interesting chameleon nasal extensions!
Contrary to popular belief, chameleons change colour as a means of communicating with each other far more than they do for the sake of camouflage, although they are capable of doing so for that reason to some degree. Most are solitary and highly territorial.
One species of each ‘typical’ genus, Oustalet’s chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti) and Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsoni), vie for the title of world’s largest chameleon, with both known to reach a length of about 68cm. The Brookesia chameleons tend to be terrestrial and blend perfectly into leaf litter, in both humid and dry forests. By night, they ascend into shrubs or trees to sleep: all chameleons are diurnal (active during the daytime).
Unlike the ‘typical’ chameleons, Brookesia do not have a prehensile tail. Rather, their tails are used to assist with balance while they are walking. These include the smallest of all chameleons – an ancient clade (or branch) of which the most diminutive is Brookesia micra.
No matter where in Madagascar you happen to be, you are virtually certain to see fair numbers of chameleons, particularly during spring and summer months. Even in the bustling capital city of Antananarivo, species such as the jewelled chameleon (Furcifer campani) are common in suburban gardens. In certain protected areas, it is not unusual to spot four or more species during the average visit of two to three days.
Chameleons have successfully occupied every suitable niche throughout the island and, after lemurs, I have found them to be the second most requested creatures that visitors to Madagascar wish to see. Even the harsh, semi-arid southern spiny scrub is home to species such as the spiny forest chameleon (Furcifer antimena) and the warty chameleon (F.verrucosus), which can be seen in spiny bush at Ifaty. On the opposite side of the country in the permanently humid north east, blending beautifully into moss, you may see the very unusual Brookesia vadoni, one of the island’s more extraordinary-looking life forms.
Locating chameleons is easiest during night walks, as they initially reflect a ghostly white colour in the beams of a flashlight. That said, experienced local guides are generally quite adept at finding them by day in the protected areas, particularly hard-to-spot species such as the Brookesias. On the flip-side, some of the more adaptable species such as Oustalet’s and panther chameleons are just about impossible to miss as they’ll readily make themselves at home in hotel gardens.
The following species are just a few of the chameleons every visitor to Madagascar should make sure is on their must-see checklist.
*Two species of Furcifer are endemic to the nearby Comoros
BLINK AND YOU’LL MISS IT
Pygmy leaf chameleon
The Brookesia minima group or pygmy leaf chameleons are some of the world’s smallest known amniote vertebrates. In 2012 a team of herpetologists including the leading authorities on Malagasy herpetofauna, Frank Glaw and Miguel Vences, published a paper on four newly described, deeply differentiated and extremely localised Brookesia species from northern Madagascar, where this genus’s diversity peaks markedly and where individual species seem to be restricted mostly to single sites, often associated with limestone karst formations.
These minute chameleons demonstrate one of the most prominent examples of dwarfism or ‘miniaturisation’ to be seen anywhere among Malagasy herpetofauna. They also represent among the most extreme examples of micro-endemism in a country boasting incredibly diverse herpetofauna.
Tiniest is Brookesia micra, so far found only in two sites where there is deep leaf litter in dry forest on the islet of Nosy Hara, off the north Malagasy coast. With adults of both sexes measuring a total length of less than 30mm and with its known distribution being a single, small offshore island, this chameleon may represent a particularly pronounced case of dwarfism – a phenomenon not uncommon on islands.
ON THE BRINK
Tarzan chameleon (Calumma tarzan)
In 2010, Philip-Sebastian Gehring, Miguel Vences, Frank Glaw et al published the description of one of the country’s most localised rainforest-dwelling chameleons, Calumma tarzan, partly named after the village of Tarzanville (now Ambodimeloka), about one kilometre from one of a handful of small, mid-altitude montane rainforest fragments in central eastern Madagascar, where the species has been found. Surveys carried out in the area, which is roughly three hours’ drive from the popular Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, revealed that this striking chameleon, with its characteristic bright yellow and grass-green stress colouration, is critically endangered: none of the rainforest patches where it has been found is formally protected. That said, where it occurs, it is locally common.
However, urgent action to ensure the species’ continued survival is necessary: one of the forest fragments it inhabits is only 1.5km by approx 300m; another is about 6km by 1.5km. The authors of the paper argue that the presence of a relatively small but constant stream of wildlife enthusiasts would be sufficient to ensure some protection of its habitat. A larger, 9km² forest site where it exists near Ambatofotsy is remote and difficult to reach except on foot, so has hitherto been spared from logging and degradation, which continue to be a problem close to Tarzanville.
GAUDY AND ABUNDANT
Panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis)
One of the easiest Malagasy chameleons to spot, thanks to its bright colouration, abundance throughout much of its range in northern Madagascar and preference for – never mind just adaptation to – degraded or secondary rather than pristine habitat, is the panther chameleon. Herpetologist Franco Andreone published a comprehensive study on this species, in which he revealed it is actually less common in closed or undisturbed forest, and more numerous along rivers (like other Furcifer species) and in roadside secondary vegetation.
As is the case with certain other chameleons, the panther chameleon has a relatively short lifespan – usually no more than two years, according to Dr Andreone. Males are larger and heavier than females. They vary regionally in colour, from the incredible sky- blue specimens with indigo blue stripes that are found on the island of Nosy Be, to the red and green colour morph most commonly encountered in north eastern locations such as Maroantsetra. Meanwhile, up in the remote northern region, they can also be predominantly orange. Females carrying young or eggs tend to turn a dark, smoky colour with stripes, which acts as a signal to males to leave them alone as they have no interest in mating.
CATCH IT WHILE YOU CAN
Labord’s chameleon (Furcifer labordi)
Confined to the tinder-box dry central western forests, particularly those in the Menabe area such as Kirindy, the Labord’s chameleon has a remarkable life cycle. During the prolonged dry season when food is scarce, the entire population exists as eggs underground. With the onset of the short rainy season, there is synchronised hatching across its range and the voracious little juvenile chameleons grow rapidly – about 2.5mm per day. On reaching maturity, females in particular develop stunningly bright, almost luminous colours – in order to attract males come mating season.
As is the case in many chameleon species, the males sport prominent appendages on their snouts and are much larger than females. A fascinating study by Dr Kris Karsten revealed that the adults mate and lay eggs and when the dry season begins again, they die off en masse. This means their entire life cycle – not just the four to five months after hatching – is annual.
THE BIG DADDY
Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsoni)
The title of the largest chameleon is regularly debated, with some believing it to be the mostly brownish Oustalet’s chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti), which is common in the dry western region. Others maintain that it should go to the Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsoni) of the eastern rainforests.
I have seen enormous specimens of both and they are both truly impressive, to say the least. Males of both species often reach a length of 695mm, with the females being a fair bit smaller. However, as a large male Parson’s chameleon can weigh more than the Oustalet’s (up to 700g), it is, as Dr Andreone has commented, the largest of the lot.
Usually green and/or brownish in colour, sometimes with yellow eyelids and occasionally with white lips, Parson’s chameleons may live up to 12 years, and reach sexual maturity after three to five years. Clutches of 20 to 60 eggs are laid in burrows about 30cm deep and hatch after 400 to 520 days.
These monstrous chameleons munch insects, as well as other reptiles and even small birds. Interestingly, they have also been known to eat fruit, making them omnivores. Formerly common at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, its numbers have unfortunately declined there due to poaching for the insatiable trade in exotic animals.