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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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