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When you think of endangered and threatened species, chameleons don’t typically come to mind; however, they should come to mind. While only a few species are in immediate danger of becoming extinct and endangered, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists "all chameleons are being threatened” in some way (Kundinger, n.d.). Many circumstances contribute to animals becoming threatened and endangered, but chameleons have become threatened primarily due to habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change.
Habitat destruction due to deforestation either for commercial gain or for increased human living space is a major concern. Chameleons are native to sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and to some parts of southern Europe, south Asia, and Australia. Some species have been introduced to other parts of the world through breeding and release into the wild. Unfortunately this means their homes are primarily in third world countries and, as Anderson (2003) says, “The dangers of habitat destruction are particularly abundant in third world countries…Agriculture is a large part of the economy and therefore, the land has value that is too high to be ignored by the government, as well as families struggling to survive in these nations.”Abraham (2014) cites an example from a study by Virginia Commonwealth University biologists that depicts the impact habitat destruction can have on chameleon populations: “In the past 50 years, the chameleon populations in the montane rainforests of Tanzania have declined by more than 60 percent from historical levels due to habitat loss and fragmentation.”
While we have seen animals adapt and evolve when their environments change, chameleons are experiencing some trouble adapting to a lack of habitat. Jones (n.d.) tells us “Chameleon populations are particularly sensitive to the problems associated with habitat loss because many chameleon populations have evolved in small, often isolate pockets and are unable to relocate.” Different species prefer different living conditions, and these living conditions lead to certain diets and even certain characteristics that are appropriate for survival; for example, the brown leaf chameleon (Brookesia supercilliar) spends most of its time among dead leaves on the forest floor and thus closely resembles a dead leaf.
Pollution is another factor that threatens the lives of these reptiles. As deforestation occurs and people move into areas once populated by chameleons, or as people use these areas for farming, they use products and pesticides that are harmful to chameleons and the insects they eat. This pollution also contributes to global temperature change, which harms chameleons.
While there are only a few studies done specifically on chameleons and climate change, there are patterns that emerge from studies done on lizards in general that can be applied to chameleons; after all, chameleons, along with geckos and iguanas, are considered lizards.
In 2010, an international study found that "as many as 20 percent of the 3,800 species of lizards could be extinct by 2080 if global temperatures continue to rise as predicted." This same study found that since 1995, nearly 12% of the lizard population had already disappeared in some parts of the world. The study claimed climate change was to blame (Connor, 2010).
Why would climate change have such an impact on lizards? According to Segall et al. (2013), “reptiles and amphibians being ecotherms, are especially vulnerable to climate change as their physiology and function are dependent on variation in environmental temperature.” Their body temperature rises and falls as their environment’s temperature rises and falls. Lizards bask in the sun to warm up, but when it gets too hot they must seek shade. If it’s too hot for lizards to stay outside, then they will not be able to eat enough food.
In fact “scientists fear that, in many parts of the world, temperatures have become too warm for the local lizards to be able to stay out during the hottest part of the day to catch enough food, causing the animals to weaken and die.” Lizards are dying rather than adapting to this change because, “beyond a certain point, the lizards can’t adapt” (Connor, 2010). Despite the fact that lizards overall are having a hard time adapting to climate change, a 2013 study examined two species of South African dwarf chameleons and found that chameleons living in semi-arid regions have a better chance of coping with global warming than do other chameleons” (Segall et al.).
The loss of a species can shift ecosystems and have great impacts on the world. In the case of chameleons and other lizards, they feed on insects that may be harmful to trees and other plants, thus providing vital pest control. They also serve as a source of food for larger predators. While we may not see chameleons and other lizards as vital to nature’s delicate balance, all species are vital to this balance and must be protected.
Bolded sections added for emphasis by blog editor.