Scientists have long considered the panther chameleon as a single species, but a team of biologists led by Professor Michel Milinkovitch of the University of Genera (Switzerland) has discovered that this species is in fact eleven different species.
The panther chameleon which can be found in Madagascar is a species which has incredible intra-specific color variations. Although Madagascar is home for unbelievable biodiversity in the past several decades the island’s forest along with its biodiversity are more in danger than ever because of deforestation.
The panther species is one of the most striking reptilian endemic species which can be found in Madagascar. It is very large, males being able to reach up to 50 cm in length. The panther chameleon is spread throughout the island, but most of them are found on the northern, north-western, north-eastern and central-eastern coasts. In addition it lives even in regions such as La Réunion and Mauritius.
Although most chameleons change their colors the range of hues is limited. The panther chameleons which live in Madagascar are unique because their color ranges vary depending on the place they live. In some parts of the island the chameleons are blue, whereas in other parts they shift between green, red and orange.
The researchers conducted two expeditions from east to west in order to collect a drop of blood from 324 reptiles and afterwards they documented them through color photographs. In the laboratory the scientists sequenced and analyzed the mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. The analysis showed that the subtle color patterns could predict the assignment of chameleons to their corresponding genetic lineage. This indicates that some of the geographical populations need to be viewed as separate species.
After this experiment the researchers simplified the analyses of the color diversity and created a classification key. The key enabled them to associate most chameleons to their corresponding species using just the naked eye. This visual classification key can help trade managers and Malagasy biologists keep away from local population over-harvesting.
Professor Milinkovitch remarked:
“Given the charismatic nature of chameleons, besides a better understanding of the genetic basis of color variation in chameleons, the study will help to continue its difficult enterprise: raising awareness for the staggering but fragile biodiversity hosted by Madagascar.”
The researchers also said that managing biodiversity is a challenging task because the destruction of the forest habitat is widespread. It is caused by firewood and charcoal production and by agricultural practices performed by populations whose living standards are very low.
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