October 30, 2014

Chameleon Capers

As the Summer rolls in and temperature and humidity levels soar, a multitude of cold blooded creatures are awaking.  A firm favourite of guides and guests alike is the chameleon.  In the Lowveld, only one species of this unique and fascinating animal is represented: the flap necked chameleon.

Whilst active during the day, spotting a chameleon is near impossible due to the masterful camouflage that it possesses but at night time, the opportunity to spot these reptilian masters of disguise is increased.  In simplistic terms, during the day time, the light of the surrounding vegetation is picked up by special cells (chromatophors and melanophors) within the chameleon’s skin and the colour is replicated, rendering them almost invisible.  At night time, there is no ambient light (and therefore no colour) for the skin to reflect and thus the skin reverts to a creamy, off white hue.  For want of a better word, it becomes a blank canvas.

For a the trained eye, a flash of white in a green tree during a night drive is all that is needed to identify an individual sleeping.  The light from the spotlight illuminates the surrounding vegetation however and within a few seconds the skin starts to change colour once more.  Thus, by the time the chameleon is in view of guests, wonderment reigns as to how on earth it was spotted in the first place!

There will always be an ethical debate about handling the animal directly but in order to teach new guides about the intricacies of this amazing creature, handling it directly is acceptable, so long as the animal’s best interests are kept to the fore.  A chameleon will start to develop black patches when stressed and should be seen as a sign to swiftly return it to the same branch to avoid further disturbance. 

This individual appeared quite at home in the company of the students however and seemed to revel in investigating its new surroundings!  Evan Jooste, Kirsten Stapel and Laura Quinn were all subjected to its explorative antics as it seemed intent on finding the highest point to survey the area.  Its specialised fused toes (didactylous foot structure) are perfectly designed for grasping branches, or in this case, ears and noses, and all watched with great interest and amusement as its independently moving eyes sought clarity in this unusual environment!

The rains will bring with them more weird and wonderful creatures and as the course continues, so will the students’ wealth of knowledge of the intricacies of one the most species rich areas of biodiversity to be found on the globe.  What strange delights await us around the next corner is one of the most exciting parts of being a guide.  Expect the unexpected as you literally don’t know what you will see next!

Blog written by Ben Coley
Photos taken by Evan Jooste
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