Rare Chameleon Species Is Found ‘Clinging to Survival’

Researchers thought the animal was lost to science.

Chapman's pygmy chameleon
Chapman's pygmy chameleon is one of the world's rarest chameleons.

Krystal Tolley

A tiny species of chameleon thought to be extinct due to habitat loss because of deforestation has been found by researchers.

Chapman’s pygmy chameleon (Rhampholeon chapmanorum) was discovered in its native forest in the Malawi Hills in the Republic of Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa.

Only as long as 5.5 centimeters (2.2 inches), the chameleon was first described in 1992 and is believed to be one of the world’s rarest chameleons. It is officially categorized as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

“They are little, gentle creatures. Other chameleon species can be hysterical, hissing and biting, but pygmy chameleons are gentle and just beautiful,” said the study’s lead author Krystal Tolley, a professor and researcher from the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the University of the Witwatersrand, in a statement.

When the chameleon was first described, substantial areas of its forest habitat were already being lost, the researchers note. So in order to help protect the species, 37 chameleons were released into a patch of forest about 95 kilometers (59 miles) north in Mikundi, Malawi, in 1998. Researchers followed up in 2001 and 2012 and the chameleons were still there.

Chameleons’ risk of extinction is “substantially higher” than the average of 15% for squamate reptiles, the reptile order they belong to, the researchers write. According to the IUCN, 34% of chameleon species are categorized as threatened and 18% as near threatened.

Finding ‘Lost’ Chameleons

When Tolley and her team assessed the area in 2014, they found no chameleons. Because there was so much forest habitat loss, they were unsure if there were any viable populations left.

In a study, researchers had compared satellite images to those taken in the 1980s and estimated that the Malawi Hills forest shrunk by 80%. Much of it was due to deforestation for agriculture.

Afraid that the chameleons were extinct, Tolley led an expedition in 2016 to hunt for surviving animals. They walked through several forest patches at night using flashlights to look for the animals.

“The first one we found was in the transition zone on the forest edge, where there are some trees but mostly maize and cassava plants,” Tolley said. “When we found it we got goosebumps and just started jumping around. We didn’t know if we would get any more, but once we got into the forest there were plenty, although I don’t know how long that will last.”

They found seven adults in the first patch along a footpath; 10 chameleons in the second forest patch; and 21 adults plus 11 juveniles and hatchlings in another location.

The findings were published in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation where the researchers describe the chameleon as "clinging to survival."

Diversity and Continued Threats

Researchers clipped 2 millimeters (.08 inches) from several of the tails of the adult chameleons to do genetic analysis. They found their genetic diversity was normal compared to other chameleon and small-bodied reptile species.

However, there was a significant difference in genetics between populations in each of the forest patches. This suggests that the populations are isolated and fragmented and unable to breed with animals from other patches. The researchers say this will reduce diversity over time and increase extinction risk for the species.

“The forest loss requires immediate attention before this species reaches a point from which it cannot return,” Tolley said. “Urgent conservation action is needed, including halting of forest destruction and recovery of habitat to promote connectivity.”

Findings like these are important on many levels, says herpetologist Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia, who was not involved in the research.

“A discovery that a critically endangered species is still present in viable populations is encouraging. The case with Chapman’s pygmy chameleon is especially significant as it was already considered lost to our natural world,” Gibbons tells Treehugger.

“Another important aspect of the finding is that habitat fragmentation is once again identified as a key factor in the decline and ultimate survival of many species worldwide. Also important and encouraging is that dedicated scientists are engaged in the challenging research necessary to make such discoveries and that others are willing to help in funding their efforts.”

View Article Sources
  1. Tolley, Krystal A., et al. "Clinging to Survival: Critically Endangered Chapman's Pygmy Chameleon Rhampholeon Chapmanorum Persists in Shrinking Forest Patches." Oryx, 2021, pp. 1-6., doi:10.1017/s0030605320000952

  2. "One of World’s Rarest Chameleons Found Clinging to Survival." EurekAlert, 2020.

  3. Tolley, K.A. "Chapman's Pygmy Chameleon: Rhampholeon chapmanorum." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021, e.T172568A197246585, doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2021-1.RLTS.T172568A197246585.en

  4. Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia