11 Species of Chameleon Masqueraded as One

By Kiona Smith-Strickland on at

Biologists just discovered 11 new species of chameleon hiding in plain sight—as chameleons tend to do.

Most chameleons can change colour, but the range of hues is limited, depending on the species. Madagascar’s panther chameleons are unusual because their colour ranges varied depending on where they lived. On some parts of the island, the panther chameleons shifted between red, green, and orange, while in other areas they tended to be blue, for instance.

To find out why the panthers had such unusual colour variation, researchers travelled into the forests of Madagascar, photographing and taking small blood samples from 324 panther chameleons.

When the researchers returned to the lab and sequenced the lizards’ DNA, they got a surprise. What they’d assumed to be one species was actually 11 disparate groups. They knew that panther chameleon populations tended to have pretty restricted territories, and based on the genetic analysis, it didn’t look like the geographically-separated lineages had done much interbreeding.

When the researchers compared each chameleon’s sequenced DNA with its photograph, they found that they could match a chameleon to its species based on variations in its colour pattern, even very subtle ones.

Even though Madagascar’s panther chameleons are no longer united as a single species, they all clearly share one prominent trait—the ability to thoroughly confuse scientists.

[Molecular Ecology]

Image: Miroslav.vajdic via Wikimedia Commons