Missing: Endangered chameleon species not seen for 16 years

Researchers start crowd-funded campaign to find just one of the world’s species under threat

Chameleons, renowned for being able to change colour, are difficult to spot at the best of times. Trying to find a tiny one that might not exist anymore, and hasn’t been seen in 16 years, poses a special kind of challenge.

Nevertheless, scientists are hoping to embark on the naturalist equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack by raising money to search for Chapman’s pygmy chameleon in Malawi.

The search was prompted after researchers working on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of endangered species found that 36 per cent of the world’s chameleon species are threatened with extinction. Most of all the Chapman’s pygmy chameleon, which has suffered badly because the forest where it lives in the district of Nsanje in southern Malawi has been decimated for farming and fuel in the past two decades.

While the pygmy chameleon will be difficult to impossible to find, the prospect of locating one will be enhanced by the species’ tiny remaining habitat.

“The assessment shed light on the fact that this species has not been observed in over 15 years and that its habitat has been reduced to approximately 0.6 square kilometres of remaining unclear forest,” Brown University’s Christopher V Anderson, a member of the research team, told the environmental website Mongabay.com, adding that the remaining habitat is divided into two small fragments about 1.7km apart.


“Given the limited remaining habitat and the intense pressure on these forest patches as potential agricultural land by the surrounding community, we felt that this chameleon species was in the most extreme risk of extinction,” said Dr Anderson. “Chapman’s pygmy chameleon is a relatively small species with a body type that allows it to mimic leaves.”

Chapman’s pygmy chameleon is largely ground-dwelling, climbing into low bushes at night. Not much is known about the species, which was only discovered in 1992.

“Unfortunately it is possible that Chapman’s pygmy chameleon is already extinct. Given just how small we estimate the remaining unclear forest patches to be, it is entirely possible that these fragments have lost ecological function and are too small to support populations.”

Dr Anderson is in the process of raising money for the trip through the RocketHub crowdsourcing website.

“Our activities are not funded, so we are holding a fundraiser to enable us to send a small team of experts to Malawi in search of this species,” he said.