15 February 2012

Miniature chameleons: beyond the “Squee!”

ResearchBlogging.orgThe discovery of several new tiny species of chameleons is making the round in science news this week. When I heard about them, I went to the paper and to see the pictures of them. And they are amazing! Look at juveniles in B and C – they are irresistible.

You went, “Squee!”, didn’t you?

This is Brookesia micra, the smallest of the new species. There are four species described in this paper, shown below:

From top to bottom, they are Brookesia tristis, Brookesia confidens, Brookesia micra (which you saw above), and Brookesia desperata.

But as I was browsing through the paper, I hit this. And it stopped me cold.

It’s the description of the name of one of the species, Brookesia tristis.

Etymology.— The species epithet is an adjective derived from the Latin “tristis” meaning “doleful”, “sad”, “sorrowful”, and refers to the fact that the entire known range of this species (Montagne des Français) suffers from severe deforestation and habitat destruction despite recently being declared as a nature reserve.

I just found this so sad. The authors are so pessimistic about the chances for the survival of this marvelous little species, they have made the gloomy survival prospects of the formal scientific name of the species.

Another species, Brookesia desperata, has a similar section describing the rationale for its name:

Etymology.— The species epithet is an adjective derived from the Latin “desperatus” meaning “desperate”. Although the known range of the species is within a nature reserve established decades ago, its habitat is in truth barely protected and subject to numerous human-induced environmental problems resulting in severe habitat destruction [41], thus threatening the survival of the species.

I am glad that one species gets a more optimistic name:

Etymology.— The species epithet is an adjective derived from the Latin “confidens” meaning “confident”, “trusting”. The known range of the species is supposedly a well protected nature reserve with apparently limited habitat destruction. Furthermore, this area might benefit from natural protection by the tsingy limestone formations which are difficult to access, thus giving hope for the species’ survival.

A lot of the news coverage is focusing on the tiny size and the cuteness of these animals (io9Gizmodo, Gizmodo Australia, MSNBC, Our Amazing Planet). Only one of the stories I have seen so far have mentioned the extreme pessimisn about the species’ continued survival. And – surprise! it’s The Daily Mail, which I mocked a while back for their headline hogwash. Their story says:

The new additions to the chameleon species are only found in an area just a few square miles in size.

Experts believe they may be especially sensitive to habitat destruction.

A big part of the discussion section of this paper is about “microendemism” This is the fancy way of saying that these chameleon species, and their relatives in this genus, all appear to have very small, restricted ranges. Presumably, they are just not able to disperse from location to location, so even minor geographic barriers becomes insurmountable to these creatures.

I’m actually terribly worried now that someone will look at these, see only the cuteness, and try to go collect them for the pet trade. That could be devastating to this species.

I wish more articles that tell people about these marvelous little animals would use the opportunity to tell people that if we’re not careful, we could lose them before we even get to know them.


Glaw F, Köhler J, Townsend T, & Vences M (2012). Rivaling the world's smallest reptiles: discovery of miniaturized and microendemic new species of leaf chameleons (Brookesia) from Northern Madagascar PLoS ONE, 7 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031314

Additional: The United Academics blog, seemingly working from press releases, does mention the conservation angle. This makes me suspect that the conservation aspect of the story is there is the press release, but it being overlooked to sell the cute. The BBC and New Scientist, to their credit, also mention the tiny ranges as a problem for these species. Wired mentions the small ranges but not the conservation issue.

More additional: Hm. The Daily Mail got the conservation right, but may have broken an embargo to do it.

Even more additional: Some discussion about whether captive breeding could be a good thing for these species on Google+.


Andy said...

I've done paleontological fieldwork in the area where these species came from. . .in fact, I spent a fair bit of time at one of those localities (didn't look for or see these new chameleons, though). In many ways, the author's text doesn't do justice to how dire the situation actually is in that part of Madagascar. Much of the forest surrounding one locality is secondary growth, and what few patches of original forest remain are clearly being cut down fairly regularly. It's a sad, sad situation.

TheCellularScale said...

What a squeetastic species! Do you think captive breeding programs would help their chances? Also, do they 'color display' like veiled chameleons?

Zen Faulkes said...

CellularScale: I don't know how difficult it is to breed something like chameleons when you're starting from almost zero knowledge about the species.

Worse, their ranges are so tiny, I worry about how many are out there to collect for captive breeding. The entire species might consist only of hundreds of individuals. If so, collected a few tens of individuals for a captive breeding program might have bad consequences.

If we know about chameleons to be confident that we could breed them, and we either (a) knew the population could handle capture of some individuals, or (b) were in absolute last-ditch effort to save the species - then I'd say go for it. I still think, “Protect their already designated as protected habitat properly” would be the better plan.

archaeopteryx said...

It seems to me that the UN should be granted the authority to intervene in such situations and force nations to preserve their species and their habitats.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that the pet trade could save them and their small numbers! What are the chances dogs and cats could go extinct, even if both are eaten in some countries?

Btw, props for sources!

Zen Faulkes said...

Joe: The pet trade can have a voracious appetite for animals, so the only way I see that ending well is if they bred easily in captivity, like guppies. Otherwise, I think marketing them as pets is a quick route to oblivion.

The story of the stick insects from Lord Howe Island make me a little more optimistic about captive breeding: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2012/02/24/147367644/six-legged-giant-finds-secret-hideaway-hides-for-80-years

Lauren Smith said...

wow, these little animals are so cool! I wish that people stop cutting down so many trees. us human don't need that much space! just get some bunk beds and large tents imported from China or something. wait! a reserve for the chameleons would be great! many chameleons could be moved there to reproduce and live happy, tiny lives! ok, i have to start e-mailing German Scientists about my idea! Zen, do u think a reserve is a good idea?