Picture: Russel Ligon
Picture: Russel Ligon

WATCH: In search of the Natal Dwarf Chameleon

By Dominic Naidoo Time of article published Apr 29, 2021

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Dominic Naidoo

Our writer, Dominic Naidoo, spent a night in search of the Natal Dwarf Chameleon. Armed with torches and a heart to track and record these threatened and protected species, the first one spotted was a baby, no more than 3cm in size. This is his story and why we should care about the smallest and biggest creatures in our planet:

I recently joined tenured members of a local volunteer-based conservation group on a monthly search for a rather tiny member of the reptile family, The Natal Dwarf Chameleon.

It is commonly referred to as the Black-headed Dwarf Chameleon, a name mistakenly bestowed upon the creature after a specimen was poorly submerged in preservation fluid resulting in the lizards’ head sticking out and thus beginning to rot and turn black.

This name is now largely shunned by the Chameleon fraternity with the designation of Natal Dwarf Chameleon being more acceptable. It also goes by other names; Dwergverkleurmannetjie in Afrikaans; iLovane in isiXhosa and Unwabu in isiZulu.

These little hot steppers are unique to South Africa, meaning that they cannot be found anywhere else on earth.

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As the name suggests, they are quite small, growing to a maximum length of 11cm with most averaging around 5-6cm.

The species is found along the coast to the north of Durban, extending south to Umtumvana and Mkambati. They can also be found inland toward Pietermaritzburg, Boston and north to Greytown.

The Natal Dwarf Chameleon usually occurs in isolated populations that are limited to very small patches of suitable habitat. Preferring a solitary life, they avoid contact with other members of their species only seeking out a mate during breeding season.

I met my dedicated hosts at a designated coastal protected area on a warm Durban evening, the sun had set about an hour before.

The group leader explained that the Natal Dwarf Chameleon can be found on the tops of tall grasses and trees where they retreat for the night, this makes it difficult for ground predators to reach them.

Video: Dominic Naidoo

If the chameleon senses a threat, it drops to the ground and disappears into the dense undergrowth.

A common misconception is that chameleons change colour to match their surroundings, and although this does happen, they usually do this to compete with rival males or to scare off predators using bright colours. They also puff up their body to make themselves appear larger, but this rarely helps when you are 5cm long. Their natural colouring is that of their habitat and surroundings.

Torches in hand, we were off. Walking along the boardwalks into the tall grass, the reserve is a very different place at night. A chorus of insects and frogs fill the evening air, a light breeze tugged on the tops of the tall reeds.

A perfect night for a bushwalk. Around 15 minutes into our search, we find one, a baby. No more than 3cm, it could be mistaken for a grass floret. We document its size, height off the ground and note down the GPS coordinates of where it was found.

Two hours later, we return to the meeting spot having found a grand total of three Natal Dwarf Chameleons, a decrease from last month. This could be because of an increase in predation or that we were just not seeing the little lizards.

As one would imagine, being this small would make it quite difficult to survive, especially if you lack natural defences such as speed, an effective bite or a sting. The Natal Dwarf Chameleon is listed in the vulnerable category on the National Threatened or Protected Species list for Reptiles.

The future of this chameleon does not look good due to continued habitat destruction and illegal collection for the international pet trade. The use of pesticides in gardens and attacks by cats and dogs also threaten the species.

HOW YOU CAN HELP:

You can provide chameleons and other species a haven by planting indigenous shrubs and trees which would attract the colour-changing reptiles and the insects they like to eat. You can also try using natural pesticides which are much friendlier for garden critters and our planet.

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