Tiny chameleon could be big for conservation

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2 Mar, 2012 Updated Fri 2 Mar 2012 06:38 CEST
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News that German scientists discovered the world’s smallest chameleon recently captured the imagination of animal lovers around the world. But one of the researchers told The Local the find was a wakeup call.


Together with a team of colleagues, Dr. Frank Glaw of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology has played a part in identifying at least 140 new species of animals. But it’s the so-called Brookesia micra chameleon – first revealed to the world in a research journal last week – that has made headlines in Germany and beyond.

The tiny 16 millimetre-long lizard feeds on insects and small mites and is found only in Madagascar, a large island country off the southeastern coast of Africa.

But Glaw told The Local rather than simply being an interesting curiosity, the discovery of Brookesia micra could be viewed as a warning to those worried about decreasing biological diversity. If things keep up as they are, in the coming decades hundreds of species of animal could go extinct in Madagascar alone, he said.

Considering that Madagascar is one of the world’s most biologically diverse places, that could be devastating for scientific advances since new animal species can be useful for everything from drug production to understanding how our ecosystem works, he said.

“Deforestation is increasing and if something doesn’t change many of the unique plants and animals will become extinct in the coming years,” he told The Local.

Madagascar has a particularly serious problem with deforestation. Everything from farming to industry has been expanding into once-green parts of the country. It also remains one of the most fascinating research destinations for people like Glaw.

Hunting chameleons

Glaw first became interested in amphibians and reptiles as a child, when he had frogs as pets. His interest then morphed into a career, which eventually led to his interest in Madagascar with all its diversity.

The now 45-year-old has travelled there at least 15 times over the last two decades, along with various scientific colleagues, but most notably Miguel Vences, a professor at the University of Braunschweig.

So how do chameleon hunting expeditions work?

The scientists hire local guides to take them to some of the most isolated areas possible. Then the hunting for new species begins using special fences and other tools that can trap animals.

Many animals, like Brookesia micra, are almost invisible. So tracking down the tiny critter was a great accomplishment.

“It was a very good feeling – an amazing feeling finding it,” Glaw told The Local. “I knew that this was something special.”

The last few years have been spent studying the chameleon and making sure it was one of a kind. Now Glaw is planning his next expedition.

It’s going to be in November this year to the northern reaches of Madagascar where he’ll be looking for more unknown species.

There are hundreds of them out there, he told The Local – but time is running out to find them and explain to the world why they are so important to protect.

“Madagascar is the sort of place that people either really love or hate – I’m one of the ones who loves it. The conservation aspect is just so important,” Glaw said.

Moises Mendoza

[email protected]



2012/03/02 06:38

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