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USD Biologist is Key Part of Study on Endangered Chameleon Species in Africa

Chapman Chapman’s pygmy chameleon is one of the world’s rarest chameleons, and it now clings to survival in small patches of forest in a highly disturbed ecosystem. Photo curtesy of Krystal Tolley

VERMILLION, S.D. – Chris Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at the University of South Dakota, helped conceptualize, raised funds for and contributed his expertise to a study on a Critically Endangered chameleon species in the southeastern African country of Malawi. Published this month in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation, the results of the study on the Chapman's pygmy chameleon have garnered media coverage from major news outlets including CNN, MSN and CNET.

The study reports that researchers found populations of the Chapman’s pygmy chameleon (Rhampholeon chapmanorum), one of the world’s smallest and rarest chameleons, in three patches of rainforest in southern Malawi. The discovery was momentous, considering the severe destruction of the species’ original forest habitat for agricultural use and the fact that the animal had not been observed by researchers in more than 15 years. Satellite images of the species’ known habitat revealed dramatic forest loss with the remaining patches of forest, collectively totaling approximately 45 hectares (0.17 square miles), being completely cut off from each other.

“I am chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Chameleon Specialist Group and as such I am responsible for guiding the activities of this group with efforts directed at the implementation of conservation actions and public policies that led to the reduction of the extinction risk for chameleons,” Anderson said. When the Chapman’s pygmy chameleon appeared on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, he spearheaded a crowdfunding campaign, primarily among hobbyist chameleon keepers, to pay for a study of the species.

To make the most of the nearly $7,000 in public donations, Anderson remained stateside while colleagues Krystal Tolley, principal scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute; herpetologist Colin Tilbury, who first described the species in 1992; a local reptile enthusiast, who volunteered his personal vehicle’s use for the project; and a representative from the Museums of Malawi surveyed three forest patches in which the species was thought to most likely still occur. To their surprise, the team found the pygmy chameleons at all three of the surveyed locations. Genetic analyses from tissue samples, however, suggested that the populations are unable to move between forest patches to breed. The resulting loss of genetic diversity posts another serious threat to the species’ survival.

The possibility of the tiny chameleon’s extinction signals a larger problem, according to Anderson.

“Biodiversity declines are an ever-growing threat to ecosystem health and function,” he said. “Chameleons are among some of the most threatened reptiles in the world, with at least one third of all chameleon species being threatened with extinction, as compared to about 15 percent of reptiles overall being threatened.”

To protect the species’ remaining habitat, the researchers suggest that the forest patches in which the chameleons live be incorporated into the nearby Matandwe Forest Reserve so that it can be proclaimed as a Key Biodiversity Area, along with introducing strong measures to ensure its protection.

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