With its distinctive shape, ponderous movements and tiny eyes at the ends of conical turrets, the chameleon is an unmistakable reptile. Its ability to change colour is very well known, but this is not done to match its background as commonly believed - although that may happen coincidentally - but as a means of communication and to regulate body temperature.
If you surprise a chameleon, it will inflate its body, open its mouth to reveal it bright orange palette, hiss, and lunge forward. Such behaviour is intended to surprise and confuse any attacker, giving the chameleon time to make an escape and utilise its superb camouflage against the foliage of a shrub or tree. Although slow-moving when under observation - they walk slowly to avoid detection - chameleons are actually able to scamper quite quickly when being pursued. The ferocious defensive behaviour of these little lizards led to the ancient Greeks naming them 'Dwarf Lions' - 'Chamai leons'.
Most of the world's 135 or so chameleon species are found in Africa and Madagascar, with just a few varieties extending to India. Over half of the known species are unique to Madagascar, where new ones are still being discovered. Madagascar boasts the largest and the smallest chameleons - the Parson's Chameleon can exceed 60cm in length (the size of a domestic cat) and the Pygmy Stump-tailed Chameleon, which is only about twice the length of a human fingernail, at about 35mm.
The Flap-necked Chameleon
Over most of Africa, the Flap-necked Chameleon is the most widespread and commonly encountered species, ranging from the dry Kalahari and temperate Gauteng Highveld, to the warm savannas of Zululand and the Lowveld, north to Tanzania and Kenya. This fairly large chameleon is usually bright green in colour, but may also be seen in shades of brown and yellow, and typically turns blueish-white after dark (when it is most easily found with a torch or spotlight). It is strictly solitary, but several males may court a female during the mating season in mid-summer. Mating is an energetic - and one might say passionate, affair - and, after two or three months, the heavily gravid (pregnant) female will search for a suitable nest site. Egg-laying usually takes place in late summer (March to April in southern Africa) when the ground is at its softest after the rains. Between 20 and 35 eggs (rarely as many as 65) are deposited in a burrow of between 15 and 30cm - excavated and then closed up by the female over a period of several hours. The eggs may hatch within 150 days (5 months) in captivity, but take up to 12 months in the wild, when development slows up during the cold winter months. The hatchlings dig their way to the surface and immediately go their own way - fully independent and able to catch tiny insects with their elastic tongue.
Prey and Predators
Chameleons prey on insects such as grasshoppers, flies, mosquitoes and beetles which are caught with the amazing elastic tongue that can be projected to a length equal to that of the chameleon itself; a spring mechanism and a suction tip combine to surprise and retrieve the prey.
Snakes are the main predators of chameleons - particularly the Boomslang and Vine Snake - but birds such as shrikes, coucals and hornbills take a good number, and the rare Cuckoo Hawk is something of a chameleon specialist. Man is the by far the greatest threat, however, as garden and agricultural pesticides kill or contaminate the insect prey of chameleons causing them to die of poisoning or starvation. The destruction of natural habitats and too-frequent grass fires are responsible for the death of thousands of chameleons.
The smaller Dwarf Chameleons - at least 14 species of Bradypodion occur in southern Africa - differ from the Flap-necked Chameleon and its relatives in that they are gregarious, posses a distinctive throat (gular) crest, and give birth to live young rather than eggs. Identification of the different species is very difficult, but each is confined to a specific locality and so we have the Knysna Dwarf Chameleon, Drakensberg Dwarf Chameleon, Transkei Dwarf Chameleon and so on.
The chameleon is regarded with superstitious dread by most rural African people and treated with great suspicion. Whether this is due to the conical eyes that enable it to look in two directions at once, its mysterious colour-changing habits, or the lightning fast reflexes of the tongue, may depend upon the beholder.
Bradt, H., Schuurman, D. & Garbutt, N. 1996. Madagascar Wildlife: a visitor's guide.
Bradt Publications, Chalfont St. Peter.
Branch, B. 1998. Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa (3rd Edition).
Struik, Cape Town.
Wager, V.A. 1983. The Life of the Chameleon.
Wildlife Society, Durban.
Posted: Other by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006