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Text by Susann Kinghorn & photos by Paul van Schalkwyk
During my childhood in Windhoek chameleons were virtually our pets. All too often we discovered one of the little ‘dragons’ in a bush or tree in our garden.
Trying to grab this fascinating creature with its rotating eyes and tiny gripping feet is no easy task. Not only does it hiss furiously and turn a darker shade as you approach, but it will readily bite you if given half a chance! So take care next time you try to coax this puffy-eyed lizard to loosen its grasp on a branch, its opposable toes characteristically bound in uneven bundles…
For many years I haven’t seen a single chameleon in the veld. Then recently, on my way to Henties Bay, I unexpectedly saw a desert chameleon next to the road and stopped excitedly to take a few photos. The excitement was reciprocal, because the chameleon hissed angrily at my camera ‘approaching’ it from all sides. At the same time its small sand-coloured body became black with rage. As soon as I retreated, peace returned and its colour reverted back to matching the light colour of the surrounding desert sand. No wonder the Afrikaners call these engaging creatures verkleurmannetjies (little men who change their colour).
What we phrase as ‘having the blues’, ‘becoming green with envy’ or ‘seeing red’ is reality for these desert dwellers. By changing their colour, they express their prevailing mood, which can range from anger, fear and submission to aggression. While the males are generally more colourful than the females, the most colourful chamaeleons are pregnant females and males in mating mode. The females signal their readiness to mate by means of their colour, toning it down after mating to keep the males away.
The so-called Lion of the Earth – a literal translation of the Latin-Greek word ‘chamaeleon’ – also changes its colour as a means of camouflage and to help regulate its body temperature. This latter ability makes the chamaeleon a poikilothermal reptile, that is one that can change its body temperature. During a cool desert night chamaeleons turn dark, enabling them to heat up faster when the sun comes up and in turn change to a lighter shade as their body temperature rises.
The flap-neck chamaeleon (Chamaeleo dilepsis) inhabits savannah woodland in central and northern Namibia and is recognised by the continuous crest on its throat and belly, its prehensile tail being as long as its body and its colour ranging from pale yellow through shades of green to brown.
The Namaqua chamaeleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis) in turn inhabits one of the hottest and most desolate regions, from the Western Karoo through Namaqualand and the Namib Desert to southern Angola. It is much shorter than the flap-neck species, and its tail is shorter than its head and body. Its prominent dorsal crest and the dull green-grey to pinkish maroon colour makes it easy to recognise. Its diet consists of anything small enough to eat, including small snakes and lizards. It has a voracious appetite, consuming up to 200 insects per day. To capture prey it can shoot its telescopic tongue out further than the length of its body. The tongue doesn’t have a sticky secretion to which its prey becomes attached, as previously believed. It was discovered in high-speed video recordings that a chamaeleon shapes the tip of its tongue into a sucking disc just before connecting with the prey insect, and then pulls it into its mouth.
An interesting aspect is that Namaqua chamaeleons can forage at the seaside, as they have nasal glands that rid their bodies of excess salt. They don’t shed or regenerate their tails as many other lizards, and their hearing is very poor.
Many people in Africa and Madagascar, where most of the 70 to 100 species of the family Chamaeleonidae occur, fear these harmless creatures, believing that they will bring bad luck. This could be because they appear to be abnormal with their protruding eyes that move independently and have colour-changing abilities. Unfortunately superstitious people more often than not kill these harmless and most useful reptiles characterised by their gentle swaying gait, described so aptly by another of their Afrikaans names, trapsuutjies.
This article was originally published in the February 2008 Flamingo magazine.