How This Chameleon Got Lost And Found Again

Chameleons are known for their hide-and-seek prowess, but one species, Voeltzkow’s chameleon, took the game to a whole new level. The elusive lizard lives deep in the forests of northwestern Madagascar, and no one had spotted it since 1913. Many zoologists had even begun to doubt that the species ever really existed. The handful of specimens that scientists described in the late 1800s must actually have been funny-looking members of another species, the rhinoceros chameleon, they said.

In a recent paper, however, zoologist Frank Glaw and his colleagues announced that they had found and studied several Voeltzkow’s chameleons during a spring 2018 expedition to northwest Madagascar.

Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon

Male Voeltzkow’s chameleons are vivid green, but until Glaw and his colleagues’ expedition, no one had ever seen a female member of the species. They were in a for a colorful surprise. Female Voeltzkow’s chameleons sport a startlingly striped, speckled mix of purple, white, black, orange, red, and green.

It seems hard to miss something that brilliantly colored, even in a dense forest. But the lizards’ incredible hide-and-seek winning streak might be a matter of timing, according to Glaw and his colleagues. Voeltzkow’s chamelon’s closest relative, a chameleon called F. labordi, lives a fleeting life during the 4 or 5 months of Madagascar’s rainy season. Its eggs hatch in November, and the lizards grow up, breed, lay their eggs, and die in the few months between November and March.

Voeltzkow’s chameleon may live fast and die young, too, according to Glaw and his colleagues. “The assumed short life might also partly explain why this splendid species got ‘lost’ for many decades, since most roads in its habitat are not accessible in the wet season,” they wrote in their paper.

Glaw and his colleagues arrived in Madagascar looking for two lost lizard species: F. voeltzkowi another chameleon species called F. monoceras. The zoologists found F. voeltzkowi, but its cousin remained elusive – as it has for the past century.

You Come And Go, You Come And Go

The find puts the Voeltzkow’s chameleon on the growing list of so-called Lazarus taxa: species that turn up in the wild years after science writes them off as extinct. One of the most famous Lazarus taxa is the coelacanth, a fish once thought to have died off along with the dinosaurs –  until one turned up in a fishing net off the eastern coast of Africa in 1938. Scientists have rediscovered several Lazarus taxa in recent years, including a giant bee, a horn-nosed dragon lizard, a pitcher plant, and a tiny deer-like animal about the size of a small cat, called the silver-backed chevrotain.

Another 1,200 potential Lazarus species may still be hiding in ecosystems around the world, according to conservation organization Global Wildlife Conservation. Until recently, Voeltzkow’s chameleon was on the organization’s Most Wanted list: the 25 species GWC chose as its top priorities for search expeditions.

The list includes a coral, an echidna, a Galapagos tortoise, a seahorse, a shark, a tree kangaroo, and the Ilin Island Cloudrunner – a little mammal known only from a single animal bought in a market in the Philippines in 1953. It’s a diverse group on purpose, according to GWC.

“We wanted to ensure that our top 25 ‘most wanted’ species spanned taxa and represented ecosystems across the planet, including land- and water-dwelling species,” the organization wrote on its website. “Most importantly, our top 25 “most wanted” species are flagships for conservation and represent genuine opportunities for conservation action with local partners on the ground (or in the water, as the case may be).”

And the chameleon is the sixth species to be crossed off the Most Wanted list since it was started.

“The Voeltzkow’s chameleon adds color and beauty to the planet, and reminds us that even when all seems lost, a great adventure can rekindle hope even for species we haven’t seen since Woodrow Wilson was president,” said GWC president Don Church in a statement.

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