If you’ve ever seen a Geico ad, then you know chameleons — those masters of camouflage with big eyes. They’re pretty cute! You probably didn’t know this about them, though…
Back in 2012, a group of researchers, led by Frank Glaw, working on the Madagascar islands made a shocking discovery: the tiniest chameleon species ever found, small enough to perch on the end of a match. Discounting their tail, which is often curled up for balance, these minute creatures, termed Brookesia micra, grow to just over half an inch in length. Their tails, when outstretched, are the same length as their bodies. With a bit of experience — the researchers had previously discovered two other tiny chameleon species on Madagascar — and a bit of luck, these tiny reptiles were discovered nesting in branches just four inches off the ground. Since they sleep at night, the researchers were able to pluck them from their tree “top” hideaways.
Most chameleon species reach maturity between three and eighteen inches in length. The largest species, Parson’s chameleon, can reach a length of up to twenty-seven inches, about the size of a housecat. Parson’s chameleon, like the newly discovered B. micra species, is found in the area of Madagascar. The Madagascar islands are famous for their biodiversity and for harboring species found nowhere else on earth, but deforestation and growing human populations on the islands, as well as climate change, continually threaten many of these unique creatures. The tiny chameleons discovered in 2012 are no exception — one species was named Brookesia desperata to emphasize the dangers it faces. With the destruction of habitats increasing as human settlements encroach on formerly forested regions, who knows how many species have been driven to extinction before being discovered? Worse than that, deforestation and habitat destruction doesn’t only threaten single species, but also the earth’s natural biodiversity.
Chameleons, with their camouflage hijinks, are a prime example of biodiversity, which is what makes the natural world beautiful. Chameleons derive their power of camouflage in part from their double-layered skin, which gives it the ability to reflect different colors at different wavelengths of light, and also from specialized pigment-dispersing organelles in their skin. Through evolution, chameleons’ color palettes have changed over time, so that those in desert regions feature more natural color palettes of grays and browns, while tropical chameleons are able to turn a number of bright colors.
B. micra is a contender for the title of the smallest vertebrate in existence. Other candidates include the world’s tiniest frog, also discovered in 2012, from Papua New Guinea, as well as a tiny species of angler fish found in the world’s oceans. And although some suggest that B. micra and species like it may represent the tiniest possible versions of creatures with complex eyes, Glaw — the lead researcher on the Madagascar team — withholds his own judgment, arguing that it’s not possible to know unless another, tinier species is found. With more planned expeditions to Madagascar, anything is possible.