Colours of Wildlife: Natal Midlands Dwarf Chameleon

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Natal Midlands Dwarf Chameleon

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Natal Midlands Dwarf Chameleon by Willem.

I am totally in love with chameleons and if given enough time, will feature every single known species in this column! For general information about chameleons, you may read my articles on the Flap-necked, the Panther and Knysna Dwarf chameleons.

The Natal Midlands Dwarf Chameleon, Bradypodion thamnobates, occurs in mid-altitude forests in the middle to southern parts of the province of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. Its scientific name means 'slow-footed bush-walker'. Forests only occur in small patches in Kwazulu-Natal and with its restricted range, it is considered near-threatened. It is one of the larger dwarf chameleons, reaching a body-and-tail length of 17 cm/7".

Multifarious Forms

This chameleon is found in a variety of different patterns and colour schemes. With chameleons being able to change colour, this might be expected, but most species have a 'basic' colour scheme which it adopts when relaxed in a typical part of its environment. Among each species, this basic colour scheme is similar in different individuals, and forms the template upon which the various colour changes are based. The Natal Midlands dwarf chameleon, however, has a variety of different basic colour schemes and individuals also have different display colours and patterns. This might be thought to indicate that there is a lot of genetic diversity in the species, and perhaps some 'hidden' subspecies or even full species in its midst. However, chameleon breeders have discovered that chameleons with the same parents can have different colour schemes, much the way that domestic cats do. So, it would seem that the colour scheme of an individual Natal midlands dwarf chameleon doesn't necessarily mean that it is genetically much different from others, and the different forms are probably all quite closely related, forming a single species in spite of outward diversity. However, there are some chameleons that seem to be intermediate between this species, and the closely related Kwazulu Dwarf Chameleon, Bradypodion melanocephalum. This still needs to be sorted out, most particularly with genetic tests.

Generally, Natal midlands dwarf chameleons can be recognized by a few features that are fairly constant. As I said before, for dwarf chameleons they're on the large side. They have prominent helmet-like casques on top of their heads. They have a row of widely spaced, sharp-pointed bumps or tubercles along the midlines of their backs and tails, the larger tubercles interspersed with smaller ones. They also have prominent, round tubercles on their sides and especially all over their legs. They have large gular (=throat) crests, with a row of flat, somewhat rectangular lobes along the midline of their throats. They puff their throats out during display or when feeling threatened, to make themselves appear larger. Their gular crests and lobes are among the largest of all the dwarf chameleons. The main distinctive feature is that their throats, gular lobes and the skin in the grooves on the throat, is white, contrasting with the darker markings on the body.

Other than that, the chameleons vary: the body colour can be greenish, brownish, yellowish or greyish. In the male, especially in display, there is often a red 'bar' along the side, often bordered above and below with black. The 'bar' is often broken. It can also be light green or yellow. Females are generally more dully coloured.

In its native habitat, this species is easy to identify because no other dwarf chameleon species occur with it. It is not closely related to the Knysna Dwarf Chameleon; its closest relatives are other dwarf chameleons occurring in Kwazulu-Natal as well as Limpopo and Mpumalanga, which I hope to be featuring here soon.

This species, like the other dwarf chameleons, gives birth to live babies rather than laying eggs. Live-bearing occurs in some other African chameleons, typically species living in cooler, montane habitats. The babies develop inside their mothers, each enclosed in a kind of sac. When she 'gives birth', the deposits the sacs one by one on leaves or twigs, and the babies break out of them. Dwarf chameleons have five to fifteen babies at a time. These are larger compared with their parents than the babies that hatch from egg-laying chameleons. But like in other chameleons, there is no parental care. The babies wander off individually after being born, each taking care of itself from then on.

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