Well, if you have seen one, firstly, well done. These mysterious and rather magical creatures have spent the last 60 million years adapting and evolving to avoid you doing just that. In fact, if I’m honest, the only time I personally see these masters of camouflage is when I’m swerving wildly to avoid them as they cross the road. But if you are lucky enough to see these ancient reptiles moving stealthily through a tree, or like me (so far, thank goodness) you manage to stop your car in time, and offer the lounging lizard a little encouragement to “get a move on” - then the environmental association Vita Nativa (based in Olhão) would like to know about it.
This year they are starting what’s called their ‘Projeto Camaleão’, which is funded by the winner of the ‘Orçamento Participativo Jovem Portugal 2019’, who won with his proposal for a ‘Center for the Recuperation and Investigation of the Algarve Chameleon’. In collaboration with the ‘Instituto Português do Desporto e da Juventude’, supervised by the ‘Direção Regional do Algarve’, and with the help of all the councils on the ‘sotavento’ (east) side of the Algarve, as well as the University of the Algarve and the ‘Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas’ (ICNF), they are hoping to promote and conserve this emblematic species.
But why is it just councils on the eastside of the Algarve that are getting involved? Well, our beloved Algarvian chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon), also known as the common chameleon, is actually not all that common, and is not found in the rest of Portugal, and even here in the Algarve they mainly keep to the east - starting around Quarteira until Vila Real de Santo António (the Ria Formosa being their most abundant stomping ground). It’s not clear how they got here in the first place, but some scientists believe they were brought here on fishing ships from North Africa as a lucky charm, or perhaps they employed these little apex predators and their quick sticky tongues as a solution to the insect problem on board. This being said, genetic studies don’t exclude the possibility of them being here for the last 200 thousand years, making these reptiles a very old inhabitant indeed.
But back to how YOU can help - and become what Vita Nativa calls a ‘cientista-cidadão’ (a citizen scientist). If you spot one you can go onto their website (www.vitanativa.org/camaleao) and let them know when and where, as well as general details about how they were doing and even upload a picture (if you manage to take one - before you blink and they disappear again). This will be a big help in improving knowledge about their geographic distribution and biology.
I once attended an event hosted by Vita Nativa where they explained, to me and a class of mainly 6 year olds, quite a few interesting facts about the chameleon that I thought I might try and slip in here, as I think they are not only fascinating, but should also help any budding citizen-scientists make a more informed report.
First off, let’s start with the most famous of the chameleon’s powers - their ability to change colour. They do, of course, use this to match their environment, but they also change colour because of how they feel, and, as you might imagine, turn bolder, brighter colours when they are feeling good, and start to dim and turn grey when things aren’t going so well. That’s why if you pick them up (which you really shouldn’t do unless you absolutely have to) their colour will quickly start to fade away. This is what inevitably happens when people decide to take them home as pets. They aren’t meant to be pets, they are wild creatures and will dehydrate and die if not left in their natural habitats. If they get hurt, for example scratched by a cat (their second worse problem, besides us humans), the area around their injury will turn black, and when they die - they turn entirely black.
So, as you can see chameleons have a hard time keeping any secrets, their skin is a dead giveaway for how they are doing, and even a pregnancy test isn’t necessary as they will simply turn yellow. Shortly before digging themselves a little hole to hibernate until spring, chameleons also bury about 30 tiny eggs in the sand between September and October, which hatch the following year, and when they do they are really tiny (just 2 or 3 centimetres long, at most). Nevertheless, they immediately start to make their way in the big bad world all on their own. Sadly, not for an awfully long time as the average life expectancy for our Algarve chameleons is only 3 years.
They asked us in the middle of the ‘lesson’, when we thought would be the best time to look for a chameleon? In the day, or at night?
Amusingly, one of the 6 year olds immediately said, “Well, obviously in the daytime. It’s dark at night, you can’t see a damn thing.” You have to admit he has a point, and apparently that’s the Chameleon’s trouble as well. They can’t see where they are, so they can’t decide what colour they should be - and so decide to turn a bright, light green, which makes them easy for us to spot with a flashlight.
As well as a year long campaign to spread awareness about the chameleon and the importance of the conservation of this flagship species, Vita Nativa will also be creating the ‘Chameleon Interpretation Centre’ at the Quinta do Marim in Olhão. They won’t have any live chameleons here, of course, but there will be an exhibition with artifacts relating to their biology and ecology. It will be open to the public and will have a little souvenir store, as well as a little auditorium where they will be able to receive school tours to teach young minds about the amazing abilities of the chameleons, as well as the importance of their conservation.
They also plan to use the money provided by the fund to help improve the facilities at the ‘Centro de Recuperação e Investigação de Animais Selvagens’ (RIAS) where they frequently help save chameleons that have been found injured or debilitated.
So, if you like the idea of becoming a ‘cidadão-cientista’ keep your eyes peeled to see if you can spot these enchanting masters of disguise.
Although I must warn you, their eyes move independently of each other and allow them to toggle a full 360 degree view - so they will probably spot you first.