The se­cret life of chameleons

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The flap-necked chameleon is the most com­monly en­coun­tered chameleon in South Africa. You might spot one of these large, green rep­tiles in the bush; they’re also reg­u­larly seen cross­ing roads in the north­ern and east­ern parts of the coun­try. Un­for­tu­nately, they’re of­ten run over. The flap-necked chameleon is one of our big­ger chameleon species and can grow to 35 cm in length (mea­sured from head to tip of tail). It’s iden­ti­fied by a flap on its head, the size of which de­pends on where the an­i­mal lives – it tends to be smaller in the south­ern part of its range. Find­ing a chameleon is ex­cit­ing enough; wit­ness­ing chameleon be­hav­iour is even bet­ter. A while ago, I was for­tu­nate enough to watch a fe­male lay­ing her eggs. Mat­ing oc­curs in early to mid-sum­mer and males fight one an­other for mat­ing rights. In late sum­mer, fe­males will dig a hole in the ground and lay 25 to 60 small eggs. Usu­ally she’ll use her front legs to do this, but some flap-necked fe­males have been ob­served us­ing their heads to move the soil! A layer of soil is de­posited be­tween each layer of eggs to pro­tect them. This is a la­bo­ri­ous process as chameleons are not ex­actly known for their speed. Once the deed is done, the fe­male pats down the soil and leaves. No parental care takes place what­so­ever. Five months to a year later, the hatch­lings dig their way up and es­cape into the safety of nearby trees. Some­times, if you’re lucky, groups of newly hatched chameleons can be seen to­gether in shrubs. They dis­perse soon af­ter, feed­ing on small in­sects and learn­ing to fend for them­selves. Ad­di­tional sources: Chameleons of South­ern Africa (2007) by Krys­tal Tol­ley and Mar­ius Burger.

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