After some recent rainfall, the land has come alive again. The trees are budding new leaves, grass turned green overnight and is growing rapidly, and the smaller creatures are out in full force. Migratory birds are returning, herbivores are thriving and in turn so are the predators. As are all the cold blooded animals.
After a period of reduced activity through the winter, induced by a combination of colder temperatures and lack of water, Chameleons re-emerge during spring.
These are fascinating creatures that are the basis for many superstitions among various African tribes. Africa has an incredibly colourful oral tradition, and for thousands of years, this story-telling has been the means through which culture, tribal history and beliefs have been passed down Generation after generation, these stories are reinforced and ingrained in a young child’s mind as early as possible.
One in particular that I find intriguing is the profound fear of chameleons throughout much of Africa. It makes perfect sense though; without the knowledge I have now, I am pretty sure I would be very sceptical as to what sculduggery or witchery was going on with these weird looking creatures.
An animal that has the ability to change colour, eyes that move independently and walks in a slow, unsure, jerky motion would immediately cause disconcerting thoughts.
Old African tales tell of how when a chameleon dies its bones turn into many young chameleons. Basically it is risen from the dead in the form of many more, thereby making chameleons immortal.
Another one tells of how a higher power sent a chameleon and a lizard to inform the people that they would live forever, but the slow nature of the chameleon combined with it getting distracted feeding en route meant the lizard won. Out of spite the lizard told the people that they would not live forever. Leading to both the chameleon and lizards being bad seen as bad omens.
I won’t focus on the second story as it seems counterintuitive that a higher power would create animals to deliberately hate each other. So let us look at what we do know about chameleons to dispel the idea that they are evil.
Chameleons are small reptiles that thrive in trees. They have the ability to climb and a prehensile tail as long as their body to help balance and which is used as an extra leg. Being slow moving animals they need to blend in when in the trees and on the ground, to avoid being seen by predators. But herein lies the root of a lot of confusion.
A chameleon changing colour does it primarily to show mood and intention, not to blend into its environment. Just how we flush red when we are angry or pale white when nervous or scared, a flap-necked chameleon uses colours to show when it is angry (dark or black), relaxed or sleeping (pale green/whitish), and when courting a female the skin on the neck becomes grey. On top of this chameleons are cold-blooded reptiles in which the ability to change colour helps in regulation of temperature; turning darker or lighter to either absorb or reflect heat respectively.
Whats the story with the independently moving eyes? Living a mostly arboreal lifestyle, it is an advantage to be able to watch your own back while also looking where you are going in front of you. The chameleon’s brain prevents it from motion sickness or lightheadedness by switching between each eye every second or so. When focused in on prey both eyes are facing forwards giving superb binocular vision with which it can very accurately judge distance, crucial for its missile-like tongue being shot out to catch prey. A chameleon’s slow, jerky motion is to mimic vegetation swaying in the wind, and is accentuated when walking on the ground to resemble leaves moving, a which hopefully camouflages them while they are exposed.
So how do we explain story of the baby chameleons crawling out of the bones of a dead adult? It is a lot simpler than one would think. Flap-necked chameleons lay 25-60 eggs in a hole that the mother has dug. Laying eggs in layers and covering each with a layer of soil is a very stressful and exhausting process, taking up to 24 hours. On the odd occasion the mother may not survive. The eggs take 9-12 months to hatch by which time all that remains of the mother is her skeleton, assuming nothing has eaten her. After hatching the fully developed baby chameleons dig themselves out of the burrow and through the mother’s skeleton appearing as though the bones have transformed into baby chameleons.
Many superstitions and ancient folklore have their basis in fact. Some incredible natural process or incident is seen long ago, in a time in which no scientific understanding is available, the story gets embellished and expanded upon over the years in repeated tellings, and over a few generations becomes a deep-rooted part of a culture.
The weird and wonderful – a group into which chameleons definitely fall – are prime targets for story-telling and legend, and I suppose it’s almost a shame to detract somewhat from their mystery by being able to offer more rational scientific explanations for some of the stories surrounding them.