A Nocturnal Hunt For The “Lions of the Ground”

I hope a title like this has gained everyone’s attention! I had been in South Africa for nearly a month, and I won’t get to bogged down in all the details but so far the experience had been fantastic and rewarding in nearly every way! I admit it… this title is a play on words. In my time here so far I must admit I have seen none of “The big 5″(Lion, Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Black/White Rhino and Leopard) large animals which make this country such a Mecca for eco-tourism and conservation. Although my nocturnal hunt was not for any of the above named animals, my target species are incredible for a number of reasons. For example, none of the above named big 5 can change their skin colour within seconds, move their eyes independently of each other in a fascinating ball & socket joint fashion allowing them look behind and ahead at the same time, or catch their prey using their tongue like a sticky quick ejecting whip! Yes that’s right my nocturnal hunt was a hunt for two species of chameleon. The title derives from the Greek translation of the word chameleon which literally means “lion of the ground”.


A adult male KwaZulu Dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion melanocephalum). Note the grasshopper directly below almost the same size! (Photo by Cormac Price).

Chameleons truly are fascinating animals, I find for those even who normally (and wrongly) regard reptiles as “evil” and “slimy” they too even have a soft spot for chameleons purely for their “uniqueness” as above mentioned. In total there are eight genera and 162 species of chameleon known globally, of that number three genera and 19 species occur in southern Africa (southern Africa refers to the countries bordering South Africa also, like Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe, etc.). Thanks to my academic supervisor here in South Africa (Professor Downs) understanding that I am completely reptile mad! She has encouraged me to try join in my spare time field work involving reptiles of all kinds! So it was up to me like all young zoologists to be brave! And network, mingle and let everyone know your interests in the hopes of finding that all too precious field work experience!

Not so long ago I joined another researcher here to visit her field site. I ended up in a conversation with the manager of the site and he mentioned in passing that one of South Africa’s top herpetologists (Dr. Tolley) would be conducting a week of nocturnal chameleon surveys shortly, this was clearly music to my ears! I got in contact with Dr. Tolley whom was extremely welcoming and approachable and was happy I showed a interested and was very happy I joined her and her researchers one evening for a survey!


A juvenile flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) . The more common and widespread of the two species encountered on the survey (Photo by Cormac Price).

Setting out from Pietermaritzburg with three colleagues from the university the weather did not look promising, it was heavy rain but at least it was still a warm 24 degrees Celsius, a luxury I know we can’t relate to back home most of the time! Luckily the closer we approached the survey site (just outside of Westville) the rain disappeared! On arrival and after a lighthearted and informal introduction to everyone, Dr. Tolley explained the aim and method of the evening. Colleagues from Israel (who were in attendance with us) had studied in great detail the European chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) and believed the most similar species was the KwaZulu dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion melanocephalum) but the KZ (for shot here) dwarf chameleon is very understudied and little is known about its behaviour or habitat preferences in comparison. What is known is that it is rare, and unfortunately getting rarer as within its natural range it is only being recorded in isolated protected pockets and is increasingly in danger of further human encroachment. So the aim of the evening was to collect 10 specimens of the KZ dwarf, GPS mark the exact points of collection and work with the 10 individuals the next day to try begin to understand their colour signalling behaviour.

The other chameleon species present and regularly encountered was the flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis). This species was not collected though as it was not the target and is one of the most common and widespread species in South Africa, even so for someone who has only been in the country less than a month it was a complete thrill to encounter them! The study site was not what I expected to be prime chameleon habitat. When I used to think chameleons I usually thought high humidity and dense thick forest growth with vines and mosses, rainforest basically. I now know that this type of habitat is only prime habitat for certain types of species. Our study site was more high grasses with thickets and pockets of small trees and bush, the earth was dry and almost sandy and there was a warm strong breeze. Not to dissimilar to sand dune habitat back home in Ireland, on sites like Bull Island.

Oddly enough the first chameleon we encountered was a adult male of the rarer of the two present, the KZ dwarf! Here is probably the time I should also admit something else….. although we found eleven KZ Dwarfs in total and many more flap-neckeds, my personal tally was……zero. But in my defense they are extremely well camouflaged! And only around the same size as a grasshopper! Dr. Tolley did tell me she has had many years experience doing this! So all of that made me feel slightly better, but chameleon spotting is definitely something I want to improve on and master over the next few years! When I saw the first KZ Dwarf it truly was impressive how well camouflaged he was he was flush to a stalk of dried grass and the exact same colour! His head was the only thing that was slightly distinctive. Interestingly when he was removed from his perch he immediately went almost black in colour and opened his mouth full gape to show a bright orange interior, a defensive display against anything considering eating him apparently.


On the left KZ Dwarf showing how well they camouflage in their grassland and bush habitat. On the right a juvenile flap-neck showing the obvious difference in body and head shape.(Photos by Cormac Price)

Our survey site was divided by a road, the side we began on Dr. Tolley first explained a little over 2 years ago was destroyed by a fire and since the fire she had seen no chameleons of either species. Our first 2 KZ Dwarfs were on that side and plenty of flap-neck chameleons! This was very encouraging to see in the flesh and goes to show that when given the chance to heal a areas wildlife can return!

When we did cross to the other side of the road though it was obvious which had the fire damage…. we found 9 further KZ Dwarfs in just under 90 minutes! Bringing our total to 11 which was 1 over what was necessary, meaning the final specimen we found a young female was lucky enough to be left where she was! Although all 10 individuals would be released in the exact locations they were found within 24hrs of capture. With our number reached it was time to return to the vehicles so as to not disturb the area anymore than was necessary after what was a very productive and exciting hunt!


One of the few female KwaZulu Dwarf chameleon (Bradypodion melanocephalum) encountered on the survey. Interestingly the majority were male, juveniles were also encountered though. (Photo by Cormac Price).

On a final note I would just like to thank Dr. Tolley one more time for allowing us participate in the survey and find out more about the wonderful and striking “ground lions”.

I would also like to take this opportunity to quickly remind readers who are recent graduates or thinking of starting a career in conservation science one important thing. Dr. Tolley was delighted to see our interest and passion and was happy we joined on this survey. I know that sometimes experts in their field or academics may appear to be daunting figures. Some may think that any questions they have will be considered dumb or simple question. I can safely say from my personal experience that is simplely not the case. Experts in their field or academics love nothing more than to talk with people who share a interest in their area! Or people who may not even share the interest just yet and are curious, the experts love their field and want to persuade you to love it too! It is up to you though to make the connection and begin stating your curiosity and interest. Most experts and academics will be only too happy to help and encourage you! So be brave and network and speak with the experts in the area that interests you! Only positive things will come of it!


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are solely this author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wandering Herpetologist website.
Cormac Price

Author: Cormac Price

Cormac Price is working with freshwater turtles for his PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is also an editor, contributor, and content curator for the website BioWeb.ie. Cormac has worked as a Conservation Field Coordinator in the Annapurna Conservation Area in Nepal.

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