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BlogForest Conservation

Chameleons of Nosy Komba

Author: Angus Hamilton
Male & Female Panther Chameleons MRCI Nosy Komba

The Panthers of Madagascar

When I landed in Nosy Be, an island off the coast of north-western Madagascar, after over a day spent in transit, I could not wait to dive in and get started. Although I was apprehensive about being in a totally different environment to what I was used to, I wanted to be in the forest, finding animals as quickly as possible! Luckily for me, it wasn’t long at all until I got my first look at some of the wildlife of Madagascar.

As we sped towards Hell-ville, the main town and port on Nosy Be, and the boat to my new home for the coming months on Nosy Komba,  my eyes were glued to the rich green of the forest that surrounded the roads.  A mere five minutes after leaving the airport though, a flash of vibrant green by the side of the road caught my eye. Something hanging from a tree branch. A slender body, but with a large casque (helmet-like structure) on its head, and a white stripe running down the side of its body… it was a male panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), a species I was going to get to know pretty well over my first days at my new home.

The next day, while sitting down for lunch I spotted from the corner of my eye a green shape extending from one of the roofs of the huts. At first glance it seemed to be an overly large leaf, but after paying closer attention I realised that it was actually a male panther chameleon!

He had slowly, methodically made his way down to the edge of the roof trying to make his way to safety: a nearby tree branch. It was a great opportunity to witness some of the unique, and somewhat bizarre, adaptations that chameleons have developed over the years.

Male Panther Chameleons Nosy Komba MRCI 3

Our male (let’s call him Kobi) was precariously dangling from the edge of the roof. His back feet were clamped firmly onto the plant material used to create the roof; his prehensile tail wrapped tightly, acting as an anchor allowing him to reach (for the branch just out of his grasp).

Watching his efforts, the ingenuity of evolution and its work on chameleon feet left me in awe! Incredibly there is no perfect scientific description for their feet! “Wait… what?!” It’s true!! Chameleon feet are bizarrely unique in the animal world. How cool is that?

They fall somewhere between two categories: didactyl and zygodactyl. On the one hand (or foot!), they have a tong-like appearance which at first glance looks like two toes on each foot. This would give chameleons what is known as didactyl feet. Other didactyl species include sloths and many cloven-hoofed ungulates (hoofed mammals). However, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that there is more to each of these ‘toes’ than meets the eye… In fact, they are a bundle of toes fused together. On their front legs, the outer bundle has 3 toes and the inner has two. This is reversed on their back legs. The closest scientific description that we have at the moment is ‘zygodactyl’, which describes the feet of parrots and the majority of arboreal bird species. BUT, and here’s where it gets fascinating! They only have two toes on each side. The third chameleon toe in the different bundles removes them from fitting properly into that category. So there we have it. The lonely chameleon.

So why do chameleons have this cool, confusing adaptation? Scientists believe the enigmatic feet of these cold-blooded panthers are perfectly adapted for an arboreal lifestyle. The ‘tong-like’ formation of the toes allows the chameleon to wrap them around smaller branches and clasp tightly, providing excellent grip and stability. Each toe of the chameleon also has a small claw at the end. This claw allows them to walk along branches and climb trees that are too large for them to grip.

These arduous tasks are also greatly helped by their tail! The prehensile nature of the tail is another indication that panther chameleons have adapted to life in the trees. Prehensile tails are unique to animals that spend their lives in the tree canopy.  Many ‘new world’ primate species, for example spider monkeys, possess a prehensile tail.  Prehensile tails provide a couple of key benefits to our tree dwellers. Arguably the most useful benefit they provide is a point of anchorage, which the panther chameleon will use in many different situations. The tail is able to support the entire weight of the chameleon, allowing it to hang from branches (or roofs) and gain access to new parts of its habitat. When hunting, panther chameleons will wrap its tail around a tree for stability when using its weapon of choice… its projectile tongue. This anchorage is a necessity when you realise that the tongue can be as long as the chameleons body, and is ‘fired’ at prey from a distance!



Female Panther Chameleon

As I watched Kobi trying to reach his goal, I got a look at just how well he was able to anchor himself (to the roof using his prehensile tail and tong-like feet). You’ll all be very relieved to hear that Kobi did in fact achieve his goal. Once he finally managed to clasp his front feet onto this small branch and lever himself into a stable position, he let go with his back legs and grabbed the branch with them. At this point he uncoiled his tail from the roof, and off he went in search of his next meal.

The panther Chameleon is one of the most common chameleon species in the North/north-west of Madagascar, and definitely one of the most versatile. Populations from different areas of the country display different arrays of colour. Contrary to, well every belief really, chameleons aren’t able to just change to any colour that they like. Thanks Pascal! All colour changing chameleons have a set palette. Most of the time their colour change isn’t a conscious choice, but a product of physiological necessity. So the colour range of Furcifer Pardalis is insane!

Or is it? A 2015 study by Grbic et al. has thrown significant doubt on the conservation status of the panther Chameleon. Prior to 2015, all of these locales were thought to be the same species: F.pardalis. Now it has been revealed that there is sufficient genetic and behavioural, behavioural being a significant lack of interbreeding between locales, evidence to suggest that what was initially thought to be only one species is actually eleven!

Furcifer pardalis is currently listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN, the International Union of Conservation for Nature. However, this classification is based on the idea that all locales are the same species. Each of these newly discovered Furcifer species will need to be individually assessedto decipher how threatened they really are. Only based on that information can management strategies be updated to ensure the ongoing health and survival of all 11 species of the panther chameleon.

The panther chameleon, similar to most arboreal chameleons, prefers areas surrounding waterways; it generally struggles to survive in areas of dense forest. Instead they tend to spend most of their lives in more open areas, such as in trees that overhang streams, or, as has been identified on Nosy Be, overhanging roads. A study by Andreone et al 2005 espoused the importance of an area of buffer vegetation between roads and either forest or agricultural land, as it was in these areas that the panther chameleon was most commonly found. While being around roads presents other issues for slow-moving chameleons like Kobi, these findings suggest that a buffer zone between roads and panther habitat is an important management step for the ongoing survival of the panther.

Male Panther Chameleons Nosy Komba MRCI 2

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1.  Grbic, D., Saenko, S. V., Randriamoria, T. M., Debry, A., Raselimanana, A. P. and Milinkovitch, M. C. (2015), Phylogeography and support vector machine classification of colour variation in panther chameleons. Molecular Ecology.

2. : F. Andreone , F. M. Guarino & J. E. Randrianirina (2005) Life history traits, age profile, and conservation of the panther chameleon, Furcifer pardalis (Cuvier 1829), at Nosy Be, NW Madagascar, Tropical Zoology, 18:2, 209-225.

4. Satanic+leaf-tail+gecko Nosy Komba
BlogForest Conservation

Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba

Author: Angus Hamilton

Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba 1

Tales of Camouflage and Leaf-Tails

During my time at the Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute, going out and searching for reptiles and amphibians was one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. Day or night, I was (almost) always keen to get out and conduct another reptile survey. Night surveys were particularly interesting. We tended to conduct these only once a week, rather than the at times every day of the daytime hikes, which meant that these were a special (but tiring) treat.

Night walks gave us a fantastic opportunity to get out and spot some of the more mysterious species of Nosy Komba. The daylight walks were great but there were many species that we’d never get the opportunity to see on these walks. It was only once night fell that we’d get the best opportunity to find some of these bizarre creatures.

At night, the day geckos (Phelsuma) would largely disappear (funnily enough), and in their place would emerge a variety of new nocturnal geckos, each one perhaps more bizarre than the last. This was highlighted by a particularly cool gecko that could shed all of it’s scales when grasped by a predator, leaving just a pink, slimy little body and a predator with a mess of slime and scales! What the hell?!

A couple of the nocturnal geckos are absolute masters of camouflage, and are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

The leaf-tailed geckos of the genus Uroplatus are extraordinary! There are two branches of gecko within the genus, categorized by their camouflage. The larger, mossy or bark-like leaf-tailed geckos (like U.henkeli, or U.sikorae) and their smaller siblings, the leaf-like leaf-tailed geckos. Across the board, these are some pretty cool geckos, but the larger leaf-tailed geckos are out of this world! The Uroplatus henkeli is found on Nosy Komba, and their camouflage makes them ridiculously difficult to spot. Almost every volunteer that came through our camp dreamed of being able to see one of these elusive reptiles! However, these geckos have only ever been found on one of our transects. To make it even more difficult for the volunteers to see one, we only get to do nocturnal surveys at the site in question as part of a semi-regular overnight hike. So to say that they were a rare find was an understatement!

Now, let’s get into a bit more of the nitty-gritty of the Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba!

Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus henkeli) is a simply awesome specimen of a lizard! They are a fairly large species, recorded to grow up to nearly 30cm long. This makes it one of the largest of the leaf-tailed geckos, and one of the largest geckos in the world! They have mottled brown colouration, with a large, flat head and tail. But what is it exactly that makes this (so far) relatively plain sounding lizard such a camouflage aficionado?

Well, on top of their mottled colouring which matches the trees that they rest on, their bodies have developed a little adaptation which helps mask them even further. The Henkel has grown little tubercles along the sides of its body, specifically along the underside of the jaw, and its body up to the back legs. This fringing breaks up the outline of the gecko, making it near indistinguishable from the bark of the tree. It sounds crazy and hard to believe, but having seen it first hand, when they lie flat against the tree trunk they are nigh impossible to make out unless you happen to be looking at the tree from a particular angle. During a walk through Lokobe National Park, I had a henkeli pointed out to me but was simply unable to see it until I changed the angle that I was looking at the tree in question. This experience made me fully appreciate just how good the camouflage capabilities of the mossy leaf-tailed geckos actually is.

There was another thing that made this species such a fixation for volunteers though. When describing this gecko to volunteers, we always made sure that this particular behavioural adaptation was highlighted because it was just SO strange. When threatened, the henkeli would raise its head and tail, open its large mouth wide, and let loose a shrill, piercing scream! To further add to it, over the years a fady (or taboo) developed in relation to the scream of the henkeli. Should a henkeli scream at you, it brings bad luck NOT to scream back at the gecko! Funnily enough, lots of volunteer’s kind of loved the idea of being ‘forced’ to scream at a gecko.

The ‘mossy’ henkeli is not the only species of leaf-tailed gecko on Nosy Komba though! The island is also lucky enough to be home to one of the smallest of the Uroplatus’, the Spearpoint leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus ebenaui). These little guys are perhaps my favourite lizard on Komba! On top of being a cute little gecko, their heads look just a tad dragon-ish with little horns above their eye sockets. What’s not to like! Despite lacking the mossy camouflage of its larger brethren, they still have developed some pretty sneaky little adaptations that allow them to blend into their arboreal homes.  They have small bodies, and lot of little ridges of skin running along their bodies. These skin folds have a neat little effect. In a similar sense to the henkeli, unless seen at the right angle, these ridges gave the ebenaui a distinctly leaf-like appearance as they sit themselves across a twig waiting for insects to fly, or crawl, past.

Uroplatus species of Nosy Komba 2

They also have a significantly shorter tail than other Uroplatus species, shaped like (funnily enough) the tip of a spear. When compared to either other species in the leaf-like ebenaui-phantasticus complex, such as the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko of Ranomafana National Park, or the larger leaf-tailed geckos, such as the henkeli or the Mossy Leaf-Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus sikorae), the Spearpoint’s tail is significantly shorter. This can probably be attributed to their preferred substrates. The ebenaui tends to prefer to sit on small, thin branches which means a smaller tail might help them to not stand out. The mossy complex prefers, instead, to spend their days resting one to two meters off the ground, faces pointing downwards and flat against tree trunks. Here a longer, flatter tail would help them blend further into the tree, maximizing their camouflage.

I was lucky enough during my time travelling across mainland Madagascar to come across two other species of Uroplatus. My experience with these enigmatic geckos only further cemented them as my favourite lizards in Madagascar.

While exploring Ranomafana National Park, nearly a seven-hour drive south from the capital Antananarivo (Tana), our guide showed us a small tree and excitedly told us that somewhere on this plant was a leaf-tailed gecko. After a quick search, practically right in the middle of this little tree, was a gecko; Uroplatus phantasicus, or the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko. Getting the name from its devilish ‘horns’ above their eyes, presumably, this species has a larger tail than the Spearpoint leaf-tailed gecko, and looks almost exactly like a dead leaf! They have a paler line running down the center of their body, and thin, leaf-vein-like lines running all over their body. To complete their dead leaf-look, males of the species even have notches on their tails, ensuring the camouflage is accurate, and thus effective, as possible. Unless you knew what you were looking for, these geckos are incredibly difficult to spot.

The other species that I came across was during my time walking through the range of parks surrounding Andasibe National Park, three hours east of Tana. Here we found the Mossy leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae). One of the smaller species of the larger, bark-like leaf-tailed geckoes, once again I was simply blown away by just how good the camouflage of this gecko was! Check out the photo below, and you can see just how much the sikorae looked just like a lichen growth on the tree. It was a great example of how the fringing does a great job of breaking up its outline against the tree!

Currently, 14 species of Uroplatus are recognized, ranging from the Giant Leaf-Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) which grows over a foot long, to the ten centimeter long ebenaui. Almost all of these 14 leaf-tailed gecko species of Madagascar are listed as being at least ‘vulnerable’ with the IUCN already. Only the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko is listed as ‘least concern.’ However, due to their incredible camouflage these geckos are highly sought after in the pet trade, and as a result have been listed on the CITES appendix II. This tells us that though they are not immediately threatened with extinction, the trade of Uroplatus species must be carefully controlled.

In 2004, all species within the Uroplatus genus were listed in the WWF’s ’10 Most Wanted Species’, a list designed to highlight the animals most at threat from “unsustainable trade and consumer demands” (WWF). Even within protected areas such as national parks, Uroplatus species are still being captured and sold into the illegal pet trade, making it extraordinarily difficult to maintain conservation strategies to help the long-term survival of these incredible geckos.

There is still so much we don’t know about these incredible geckos though. For example, it is thought to be almost certain that there will be more than just 14 species of Uroplatus out there. Scientists are pretty sure that a number of species exist within the current U.ebenaui complex, and it is only a matter of time until more of them are recognized as being separate species. In a similar fashion to the Panther chameleon we’ve looked at previously, once these new species are officially discovered an individual evaluation would need to be conducted. It is difficult to see how a number, if not most, of those new species would not be considered endangered to some degree, considering the survival status of the known species.

Unfortunately, these masters of camouflage are also at great risk from the loss and fragmentation of their habitat. All Uroplatus species depend on intact, relatively healthy forest to survive, and the ongoing deforestation within Madagascar is making this less and less common. Funnily enough, without trees their camouflage is not nearly as successful. When you consider that many of the leaf-tailed gecko species live in isolated pockets of forest, this becomes a little bit more troubling. At the end of the day, the forests of Madagascar are becoming ever smaller.


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Arkive (2017). Satanic leaf-tailed gecko videos, photos and facts – Uroplatus phantasticus | Arkive. [online] Arkive. Available at:

CITES (2017). How CITES works | CITES. [online] Available at:

IUCN (2017). Uroplatus ebenaui. [online] Available at:

IUCN (2017). Uroplatus henkeli. [online] Available at:

IUCN (2017). Uroplatus phantasticus. [online] Available at:

World Wildlife Fund (2017). WWF Announces ’10 Most Wanted Species’ | Press Releases | WWF. [online] World Wildlife Fund. Available at: