Threatened Chameleons of Madagascar


Bertrand lifts up the tiny chameleon on the tip of

his finger, and we stare at this little marvel in

wonder. Early this morning we clambered up

over the limestone cliffs behind the beach where

we had camped to look for chameleons in the dry

forest that covers this tiny island off Madagascar’s

north coast. Bertrand Razafimahatratra is my

guide and an unparalleled chameleon expert.

He knew exactly where to find these tiny leaf

chameleons, carefully searching them out in the

leaf litter between the buttress roots of a huge

tree about a half-hour hike from the beach. As he

stands with one chameleon perched on his finger,

he points out another in the dead leaves. I crouch

down and gently scoop this microscopic animal

onto my palm. I am holding the world’s smallest

reptile—Brookesia micra—in my hand. Incredible!

We are on an uninhabited islet just off the

coast of Madagascar: a fragment of untouched

dry forest in the middle of a clear, turquoise sea.

We arrived yesterday in a little motorboat,

skimming over gentle waves to land on a perfect

half moon of sand where we set up camp while

we search for chameleons. Maybe 500 individuals

of B. micra live only here on this island—a tiny

population of tiny reptiles. Over the last two

months, Bertrand and I have driven the length of

Madagascar (over 6,000 kilometers, or 3,700 miles)

in search of chameleons and we have photographed

over 40 of Madagascar’s 76 species. Just like

B. micra, almost all chameleon species we have seen

are restricted to small patches of habitat, perfectly

adapted to their respective environments—from

wet rain forests to seasonal dry forests, or

highlands to deserts. Take the Labord’s chameleon

(Furcifer labordi ), for example, adapted to live in

the seasonally dry forests of Madagascar’s east

coast. This species spends almost its whole life as

an egg. The eggs hatch with the first rains and

grow to adulthood, reproduce, and die in the four

to six month wet season, leaving the eggs to

endure the months of drought. Chameleons are

the masters of their chosen habitats.

Almost alien in appearance, chameleons

have independently moving eyes, they can change

the color of their skin on demand, their tails

curl into a perfect spiral, and they have odd

appendages—an extended knobby nose or a horn

protruding from their forehead, and a fantastic

extendable tongue for catching insects.

Madagascar is the center of chameleon

biodiversity; almost half of the world’s chameleon

species live here and all are endemic—they live

nowhere else on earth. This pattern is seen across

all groups of organisms here. Madagascar has

more endemic species than almost anywhere

else in the world. Alone in the Indian Ocean,

Madagascar’s wildlife has evolved in isolation for

over 80 million years, generating thousands

of species seen nowhere outside this island.

However, as we traveled through Madagascar, we

witnessed a landscape worn thin from overuse:

deforestation, agriculture, and wildfires have

reduced original forest cover to less than 8 percent.

Many of the chameleons we have seen live in

tiny fragments of habitat. How can these

habitat specialists survive without their habitat?

Today, over half of Madagascar’s chameleons

are threatened with extinction, and there is a

real urgency to act to conserve Madagascar’s

remaining natural habitats and their unique

species. The dry forest that is home to the tiny

B. micra is a reminder of what Madagascar may

have looked like a century ago, and, unlike many

chameleon species, the world’s smallest reptile

is safe in its perfect patch of habitat far from

human disturbance.

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