Slightly smaller than Texas, the island nation of Madagascar is one of the most biologically diverse hotspots in the world: 95 percent of its reptiles, 92 percent of its mammals, and 89 percent of its plant life exist nowhere else on Earth. Now, scientists have added a chameleon trio to the country’s VIP list.
With rainbow skins, teeny bodies, and Pinocchio noses, three newly discovered species join more than 80 members of Madagascar’s Chamaeleonidae family.
The “spectacularly colored rainbow chameleon” Calumma uetz resides only in a remote area of northern Madagascar. Measuring just 10 centimeters (4 inches) from tip to tail, its display of coloration makes it easily distinguishable from all other species. This is especially true when members of the opposite sex come together. Males light up in a display of yellow, violet, and red to impress females, while the less flashy sex either take to the male's display or turn on him, mouth agape and skin darkening to the point of nearly black.
Only female specimens of Calumma juliae were discovered in a dwindling fragment of forest beside Madagascar’s most heavily traveled roads. This isolated forest covers an area of just barely 15 hectares, and it is the only known home to this relatively large chameleon identified by a distinct dorsal crest and infralabial scales.
"We hope that this area can be protected as soon as possible," said lead study author David Prötzel in a statement. "Recent imagery from Google Earth shows that, since our discovery of this chameleon just two years ago, a significant area of its tiny home has already been lost to deforestation."
Lastly, researchers found a single male specimen of Calumma lefona. Named for the Madagascar word for “spear”, these reptiles have a long and pointed rostral appendage – or nose befit for Geppetto’s favorite puppet. X-ray and micro-CT scanning of the chameleon's head revealed a large hole in the roof of the skull directly over the brain. While similar holes have been recorded in at least six other Calumma species, nobody knows exactly what it does. Since these holes appear in animals living in elevations of more than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level, scientists believe it could have to do with the ability to thermoregulate.
Within the 87 endemic species described so far on the island, one-third of them have been described within the last two decades.
“Almost 200 years later, saturation of species numbers in the family Chamaeleonidae is not yet in sight,” reads the paper. “More in-depth studies with a large number of markers will be necessary to clarify the convoluted phylogeny.”
The study was published in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.