08 December 2011

What will happen to Peter's chameleon?

Petter's chameleons (Furcifer petteri), Vulnerable.

Back in the dry season of 2007 on the very northern tip of Madagascar, our favourite nightwalk victim became sleeping Petter's chameleons (Furcifer petteri) {Peter/Petter wasn't asleep the chameleons were).

Attributed as a defense mechanism these chameleon climb to the furthest parts of branches and curl their prehensile tails around branch before they nod off. If predators come along the branch tip is more shook up than the rest and either the chameleon wakes up or falls off to be rudely awakened once it hits the ground.

IUCN classifies them as vulnerable but this is largely due to our lack of knowledge how fragmentation affects this species. We found them in a patch of dry deciduous forest fairly close to the coastline, they have also been found in survey of two national parks - Mt. Ambre (wet montane) and Ankarana (dry and full of limestone karst).

The problem is that we don't know if they can bridge the expanses between these sites and if they have been isolated for too long to provide a healthy population. Most likely, they are severely impacted by deforestation and survive in small pockets of remaining habitat.

Another confounding thing about the Petter's chameleon, true also for other species, is that juveniles are too easily confused with similar looking species. We just don't know enough about them or their lives to make even rough estimates of habitat requirement, sensitivity to human disturbance / cattle disturbance. Species range is also loosely defined for these chameleons.

What I do know is that they are the least stressed out/nasty when being handled, will hold onto a pencil like a security blanky while you weigh them and measure lengths. Sexing adults is easy peasy for the Petter's chameleon - males have you-can't-miss-it nasal protrusions (refer picture). These were also the first chameleons that I saw with PINK on them - they put on trippy color shows.

We definitely need to assess what species remnants of northern Malagasy forests harbor and how best we can connect fragments across the agricultural landscape. Especially now when Madagascan biodiversity is more threatened than ever before (with the last political coup and rampant harvesting of illegal hard wood from pristine primary forests).

Here's a pic of one of them lounging on the camp fence after spending a night on camp with us.