Now you see it; now you don’t. One sneaky species plays a world-class game of hide-and-seek. How good is this critter’s game? Scientists didn’t spot a Voeltzkow’s chameleon for over 100 years. But that’s changed.
God gave chameleons many amazing qualities. The reptiles have toes that face both forward and backward, long tongues, grasping tails, and twirling eyes. And of course, their most famous feature is the ability of many species to change color. This color shift can act as camouflage, allowing an animal to conceal itself. But more often, it’s a reaction to the lizard’s surroundings or a signal for other chameleons.
Frank Glaw is curator for reptiles and amphibians at the Bavarian Natural History Collections in Munich, Germany. In 2018, he led a team to locate the rare Voeltzkow’s chameleon. Researchers know very little about this hard-to-find species. After all, Voeltzkow’s chameleons live for only a few months during the rainy season—and only in remote areas in the African island nation of Madagascar. Glaw calls them “the mayflies among vertebrates.”
Scientists were beginning to wonder if the chameleon actually existed. No one had seen one since 1913!
Glaw’s team searched for five tense days. Finally, some group members spotted more than a dozen Voeltzkow’s chameleons—three males and 15 females. But the important find didn’t come in an out-of-the-way jungle. The reptiles were hiding in plain sight: in a hotel courtyard!
“It was a special mixture of great pleasure, excitement, and relief,” Glaw told the nonprofit conservation group Mongabay.
Last fall, the team released their data in the journal Salamandra. The report contains some surprises. Centuries-old specimens already showed males of the rare species to be bright green. But no one had ever recorded a female’s appearance. Turns out, the flashy female Voeltzkow’s chameleon sports multi-colored skin. Researchers also now know that the female chameleon displays especially colorful patterns during pregnancy, when confronting males, and when stressed.
The re-discovery puts the concealed chameleon on a uncommon list. So-called Lazarus taxa are species that scientists believed were extinct—until they show up again after many years. The reference is to the biblical Lazarus. The parallel isn’t perfect. After all, these chameleons weren’t deceased, only hiding. Still, imagine glimpsing a creature you thought to be dead walking (or slithering or swimming) toward you!
Already-found Lazarus taxa include the coelacanth (pronounced SEEL-uh-canth) fish, Wallace’s giant bee, a dragon lizard, a pitcher plant, and the small, deerlike chevrotain.
Scientists believe as many as 1,200 Lazarus taxa species may still be in hiding. Keep your eyes open—you could make the next rare animal re-discovery!