Expedition Team Heads to World’s Hottest Chameleon Hotspot in Search of Species Lost for 105 Years

For immediate release
March 28, 2018

Madagascar is home to nearly half of the world’s chameleon species—flashy, color-shifting reptiles with eyes that can look in different directions, giving the animals nearly 360-degree vision. This includes the Voeltzkow’s chameleon (Furcifer voeltzkowi), a species described in 1913, which is one of Global Wildlife Conservation’s top 25 “most wanted” lost species. A scientific team set off this week on a two-week expedition to try to rediscover this chameleon and one other, Furcifer monoceras, in northwestern Madagascar.

The Voeltzkow’s chameleon is known only from a few individuals, while F. monocerasis known only from a single individual—all of which were collected more than 100 years ago.

“To rediscover these species would be a great pleasure—perhaps even more exciting than to find a new species, since such rediscoveries are very rare events,” said Frank Glaw, head of the Department of Vertebrates at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München, who is leading the expedition in partnership with Global Wildlife Conservation, chameleon asset management ltd, the Swiss sponsor, represented by Carlos Zanotelli, and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. “It is also critical that we learn more about these animals, since we know so little about them right now. I would be very happy if we could provide the basic data that we would need to then effectively conserve them.”

The rediscovery of either of these species, would allow researchers to collect basic information about where the species live, how many individuals are left, what habitat they prefer, the threats to their survival, their natural history, their coloration and even why they’re lost—whether it’s because they’re rare or cryptic or because they can only be seen seasonally. Their rediscovery would also confirm what a soon-to-be-published paper suggests: that the Voeltzkow’s chameleon and F. monoceras are their own distinct species, instead of morphological variations of the rhinoceros chameleon (Furcifer rhinoceratus), as previously believed.

“If you have a single aberrant chameleon like Furcifer monoceras, collected more than 100 years ago, you cannot really know whether it is an anomaly or distinct species,” Glaw said. “This is one reason why we are excited to go into the field to try to rediscover these forms. We also want to see what color they are alive.”

The 10 members of Glaw’s expedition team will search for the animals mostly in dry deciduous forests, using headlamps and flashlights at night to look for chameleons sleeping in vegetation. The team also plans to search during the day and interview locals in case they have spotted either of the species. The team’s adventure will be at the tail end of the rainy season, which could make some paths impassable—small bridges that have washed away and passages so muddy that cars get stuck.

“In true Search for Lost Species fashion, the search for the lost Voeltzkow’s chameleon is going to be a tremendous adventure,” said Don Church, GWC president and Search for Lost Species program lead. “This is a poorly surveyed area, so even if the team overcomes the obstacles but doesn’t rediscover the chameleons, they’ll be compiling data on other amphibians and reptiles in the area, which we suspect will lead to some other exciting finds. But we’ll be holding out hope for the rediscovery of the Voeltzkow’s chameleon in the days to come.”

About 90 chameleon species in Madagascar live nowhere else in the world. The most common threats to the reptiles are bush fires, cattle grazing and deforestation. Chameleons are the only lizards with feet split into two and three “fingers” they use to climb trees. They also have tongues that are up to twice the length of their body. In 2012, Glaw and team discovered the world’s tiniest chameleon species, Brookesia micra, in Madagascar. Most recently, biologists, including Glaw, found that chameleons have glow-in-the-dark bones, the first record of bone-based fluorescence in vertebrates.

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Photo: Voeltzkow’s chameleon artwork by Alexis Rockman
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Search for Lost Species press kit

The Search for Lost Species
The Search for Lost Species, a Global Wildlife Conservation program, is the largest-ever global quest to find and protect species that have not been seen in the wild in decades. collaboration with more than 100 scientists, GWC has compiled a list of 1,200 species of animals and plants that are missing to science. From this list, GWC has teased the top 25 “most wanted” species in the world. Quirky, charismatic and elusive, these species are global flagships for conservation. Learn more at www.lostspecies.org/

Global Wildlife Conservation
GWC conserves the diversity of life on Earth by safeguarding wildlands, protecting wildlife and supporting guardians. We maximize our impact through scientific research, biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention, endangered species recovery, and conservation leadership cultivation. Learn more at http://globalwildlife.org

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Lindsay Renick Mayer
Global Wildlife Conservation