Rainbow Chameleons Display True Colors When Courting

rainbow chameleon
A male of the new chameleon species Calumma uetzi flaunts his display colors. The female's dark color and open mouth are clear signs that she is not impressed.
Frank Glaw (ZSM/LMU)

About 160 million years ago, a swath of land roughly the size of Texas drifted away from the southeast side of the African continent, creating what we now know as Madagascar. The terrain's geographical isolation meant that many of its flora and fauna evolved in spectacularly unique ways, including a vast array (at least 420 so far) of funky little reptiles, 95 percent of which live only on this island and its outliers. Scientists still routinely discover new plant and animal species — more than 600 from 1999 to 2010 alone — like the three chameleons recently classified by German scientists from the Zoologische Staatssammlung Munich (Bavarian State Collection of Zoology). The findings were published in the April 2018 issue of the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The visually striking highlight of the three new lizards is undoubtedly the Calumma uetzi, a chameleon with rainbow-colored stripes along its back and tail. The new species, discovered during an expedition, is easy to identify, particularly when males approach females during the mating ritual. His colors intensify in a gaudy show of reds, yellows and violets as he seeks to gain a female's approval. Unimpressed females are equally simple to spot — their skin turns dark brown and almost black, with a few flecks of yellow adorning their heads. Just to emphasize her distaste, the female aggressively opens her mouth toward the male's unwanted advances.


Although not as colorful, the Calumma lefona is just as striking, thanks to its elongated nose flap, called a rostral appendage, which is flexible and has no underlying bone material. The appendage has bits of bright pink and purple, leading up to the lizard's second odd feature — a hole in the center of its skull, something that other chameleon species have, too, and may be used to help the animals regulate their body temperatures.

Researchers have located only about a dozen of the third little chameleon, Calumma juliae. This brown and blue-flecked lizard (pictured in the tweet below) apparently has a range of only about 30 acres (15 hectares), making it incredibly rare. So far, only females of this species have been found.

Although Madagascar is the fifth-largest island on Earth, rampant deforestation and habitat loss mean all three of these new chameleon species are threatened by extinction. In the meantime, researchers keep racing to document more fauna like these little lizards before they are lost forever.