New book – “Chameleons”

My new book, “Chameleons” has just been published (please see the Publications page for details).  Here’s the Introduction.

Warty Chameleon, Furcifer verrucosus, juvenile, Berenty, Madagascar

A young warty chameleon, Madagascar

Of all the lizards, the chameleons are the most charismatic.  Although they are objects of fear and superstition in some of the places where they live, to Western eyes they are amusing curiosities even among the many people who otherwise dislike reptiles.  For visitors to Madagascar they one of the “must see” animals, along with other groups of unique animals from that remarkable island, and in parts of East Africa, small boys bring chameleons, clinging to a stick, to show tourists in the hope of earning a small reward.

They have made their way into the English language as a metaphor for fickle or changeable behaviour and they have lent their name to organisations that want to emphasise the adaptability of their services and products.  Chameleons appear in advertisements and in the titles of pop songs, a claim that few other lizards can make (or would want to, presumably).

Von Hohnel's chameleon, Chamaeleo hohnelli

A male Von Hohnel's chameleon, Chamaeleo hohnelli

They are, of course, harmless, although a few can give a painful bite if they are handled roughly.  But it is their unique appearance that makes them so remarkable.  This is the result of the way in which they have adapted to their environment.  Their body shape and their ability to change colour keep them hidden from predators; their pincer-like feet and prehensile tails turn them into them expert climbers; while their independently swivelling eyes and projectile tongues help them to find and capture food.  The chameleon is the Swiss Army knife of the reptile world.

Although most chameleons follow the same basic plan, they vary in size, shape and colour. The smallest species are shorter than a matchstick and eat mites, springtails and other barely-visible creatures that live on the forest floor, whereas the largest ones are ferocious hunters that think nothing of crunching their way through large, heavily-armoured beetles, small lizards and even mice. Many species have crests, horns and bony helmet-like structures on their heads, giving them a prehistoric appearance.  And they live in such amazing places; from the green and soggy rain forests of eastern Madagascar to the arid Namib Desert, one of the driest places on Earth.  Coming across a chameleon in its own environment is always an exciting event.

Namaqua Chameleon, Chamaeleo namaquensis

Namaqua Chameleon, Chamaeleo namaquensis, in the Namib Desert near Swakopmund, Namibia

Like reptiles in many parts of the world, chameleons are under pressure from human activities, most notably land clearance and development.  At the same time as new species are being discovered (four were named while this book was in preparation, for instance) others are being pushed towards extinction.  We hope that this brief account of chameleons will stimulate interest and answer some of the questions about them.  Increasing our knowledge and appreciation of them is the first step towards preserving them, their habitats and the other plants and animals that live alongside them.

Copyright Chris Mattison

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