In years gone by trackers would amaze guests when they spotted the incredibly well-camouflaged flap necked chameleons. Nestled in amongst the branches of a tree, the trackers would see a slight colour and reflection difference, revealing one of these tiny creatures. This summer I can count on one hand the number of chameleons I’ve seen though. So the simple question on my mind is, where have all the chameleons gone?

A chameleon found at night despite hiding in dense bush, thanks to the use of a spotlight.

It is no secret that Londolozi has just come through one of the biggest droughts in the last 20 years. Could this be responsible for the missing chameleons? I think before we can answer that question we need to touch on the breeding and behaviour of this small reptile.

The Nkoveni female leopard walks through the stark and drab bush that was pervasive over Londolozi for most of last year.

The flap necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) is the only species of chameleon we find here on Londolozi. This species is generally green in colour and is easily recognized by the flap of skin that it has at the back of its neck, called the occipital flap. It is usually not bigger than your hand. It has fused opposable toes which they use to grip securely onto branches and a very long tail which is used as a fifth leg, making the flap necked chameleon perfectly suited for living in trees.

A flap necked chameleon uses its opposable toes to makes its way along an exposed branch.

Flap necked chameleons rely heavily on cryptic colouration. This means that their mottled green colouration blends in perfectly with their leafy habitat. This helps them escape notice from a number of predators that prey on them on Londolozi, including an array of birds and snakes (ground hornbills, shrikes, vervet monkeys, boomslangs and vinesnakes). If I look back at photos from November last year, I am reminded of how bare a majority of the trees were. With nowhere to hide they must have made an easy meal for the large number of predators the flap necked chameleon has. Even though flap necked chameleons have the reputation for displaying aggressive behaviour (when threatened they will puff up and hiss to ward off predators) unfortunately for them they are ‘all bark and no bite’. This coupled with the lack of cover must have made them easy pickings for predators.

A flap necked chameleon attempts to ward off a predator with this impressive display. Although they are not actually dangerous, by flaring their necks up like this, showing the inside of their mouths and hissing, they hope to scare off whatever is threatening them.

I have even noticed a small behaviour change in one of their main predators, the Southern ground hornbill. Usually as a ground hornbill walks under a tree, they tilt their heads up into the canopy to look for chameleons. Lately though I have not seen much of this behaviour from these large birds.

A Southern ground hornbill takes flight. These birds feed predominantly on the ground looking for food such as tortoises, snakes and chameleons to eat.

The breeding behaviour of a flap necked chameleon is something that I have always found interesting. After mating, the eggs take about two to three months to develop and the chameleon will lay between 10 – 40 eggs in a hole dug in the soil. These eggs will take close to a year to hatch. The fact that eggs are laid in a dug hole in the soil might help us better understand why we haven’t seen as many this summer. The lack of rain over the past two years has cause the ground to become rock hard. Has this hindered the flap necked chameleon’s ability to dig into the soil to bury the eggs?

A flap necked chameleon looks behind it, using its independently moving eyes. It is dangerous to be exposed to this and so these animals will normally only move about on the ground if they are looking for a mate or seeking out a nesting site.

Is this the end for flap necked chameleons on Londolozi? In my opinion, no. If the drought has taught us anything, it is that animals are incredibly resilient. If we look at the buffalo for example, it has taken them less than four months to get back to the powerful force they were before the dry times began. In my opinion it will take the flap necked chameleon a little longer to recover, but as their habitat does, so will their numbers.

As we slip into winter now, chameleons and other reptiles begin to aestivate (a state of dormancy related to the dry season) and our sightings of them diminish naturally. I look forward to the return of the next summer so that we can once again amaze guests by the somewhat ‘magical’ spots being pulled off by Londolozi’s trackers.

Written by Londolozi Ranger, Fin Lawlor

Filed under Wildlife

8 Comments

on Where Did All the Chameleons Go?

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Mike
Guest

Well written and insightful piece

Lea
Guest

Nice blog Fin. Mother Nature is amazing and, even in tough times, the animals seem to carry on, although not as they normally do. Hopefully these precious souls have found a place to lay their eggs, and, as you say, we can hope that come next summer they will reappear.

Jill Larone
Guest

Very interesting write-up Fin! I was one of those amazed guests, as Lucky spotted a Chameleon in the dark on a small leaf, on the way back to Tree Camp in the Land Rover on two separate nights! Astounding!

Dianne Riddel
Guest

Such a well written artical Fin…thank you.

Valerie Maugle
Guest

I love those little creatures. They are number one on my list to find on my next trip to Londolozi!
Thanks for the write up, it’s nice to know they are not forgotten among all the big game competition.

Kobus Dannhauser
Guest

Hi Fin, we are in the north of the Sabi Sand close to Gowrie gate, and we have also noticed that there are a lot less chameleons then previous years, the good news though is that Devina my daughter spotted 4 of them on one night drive last week.

Regards Kobus Dannhauser

Patty Jenco
Guest

Hi Kobus. Its Patty Jenco – met you on the Prague to Budapest cruise. Trying to find out how to visit your sight for safari tours. Hoping to hear from you :o)

Marinda Drake

Interesting blog Fin. We actually did not see as many chameleons so far this summer as we usually do. We had a fair amount of rain so far this season, hopefully the sightings will improve.

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