Graceful chameleon (Chamaeleo gracilis)

GenusChamaeleo (1)
SizeLength: up to 31 cm (2)

Listed on Appendix II of CITES (1).

Belonging to a well known family of lizards with a bizarre appearance and a remarkable biology (3), the graceful chameleon, like many other chameleons, is capable of rapidly changing its body colour, and resting individuals may be found exhibiting a range of hues such as green, brown or yellow (2) (4). Markings vary between individuals, but usually include a pale-green band running along the flanks and a number of spots and blotches which can vary in colour and brightness (2) (5). The head extends at the rear into a small, bony prominence known as a “casque” and two small crests composed of large conical scales run down the midline of the upper and lower surfaces of the body (4). The male graceful chameleon can be identified by the brilliant yellow-orange skin between the scales of the throat pouch, which is exposed when the pouch is inflated during threat displays (2).

The graceful chameleon is distributed throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. The northern limits of its range extend from Senegal in the west, eastwards through most of the countries bordering the gulf of Guinea and through Central Africa to Sudan and Ethiopia. The southern limits run from Angola in the west to Tanzania in the east (1) (4).

The graceful chameleon occupies a range of habitats, including both dry and humid mature forest, forest that has undergone degradation, bushy areas surrounding farmland and plantations, and even savannah (4) (6).

A diurnal species, the graceful chameleon commences activity early in the morning, alternating between periods of intensive hunting and basking in the sun (6). It feeds on a variety of invertebrate species (6), which it catches using its remarkable, extensile tongue (3). The contraction of special muscles within the tongue rapidly propels it towards the prey, which is snared by a combination of the tongue’s sticky mucous coating and a vacuum created by muscles in the tip (3). During the hottest part of the day the graceful chameleon rests in the shade, where it conceals itself from predators behind broad leaves. It recommences hunting from late afternoon until dusk, before spending the night resting amongst vegetation close to ground level (6).

Males are highly territorial and will aggressively compete with other males. Initially, rivals engage in elaborate threat displays, becoming bright green with dark-olive or black spots, arching their backs, expanding their throat pouches, and raising their tails to give the impression of greater size (2) (5). If neither male backs down, they will make lunges for the other’s throat, often inflicting severe and even fatal injuries (5).

The graceful chameleon may breed twice a year, with two main egg laying periods occurring, one between the end of the wet season and onset of the dry season, and the other in the middle of the dry season (6), during which a clutch of between 22 and 50 eggs is laid (2).

The graceful chameleon is one of the most extensively exported chameleon species, with over 45,000 individuals exported between 1977 and 2001. The greatest demand for these chameleons comes from the U.S.A, where they are sold in the pet trade (7). Compounding this exploitation, numerous graceful chameleon are captured, killed and dried every year for sale as a traditional medicine (6).

Although in many parts of this species’ range extensive deforestation is occurring, unlike other chameleon species, the graceful chameleon does not appear to be particularly adversely affected. In fact, a study of four chameleon species in Nigeria showed that after extensive logging and forest degradation, local graceful chameleon populations actually increased, presumably because the populations of the other competing chameleon species in the area were destroyed (6).

The graceful chameleon is listed on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and any international trade in this species is therefore strictly controlled and regulated by annual maximum export quotas (1). As a further contribution to the sustainable exploitation of this species, many countries now export chameleons from specially designated ranches or individuals that have been raised in captivity. Therefore, despite the relatively high levels of trade, at the current time, the graceful chameleon appears to be relatively common (6) (7).

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Authenticated (23/02/2009) by Edward I. Pollak, Ph.D. Department of Psychology, West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

  1. CITES (June, 2008)
  2. Bartlett, R.D. and Bartlett, P.P. (1995) Chameleons: Everything About Selection, Care, Nutrition, Diseases, Breeding, and Behavior. Barron's Educational Series Inc, New York.
  3. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptile and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. (January, 2009)
  5. Pianka, E.R. and Vitt, L.J. (2003) Lizards: Windows to the Evolution of Diversity. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  6. Akani, G.C., Ogbalu, O.K. and Luiselli, L. (2001) Life-history and ecological distribution of chameleons (Reptilia, Chamaeleonidae) from the rain forests of Nigeria: conservation implications. Animal Biodiversity and Conservation, 24: 1 - 15.
  7. Carpenter, A.I., Rowcliffe, J.M. and Watkinson, A.R. (2004) The dynamics of global trade in chameleons. Biological Conservation, 120: 291 - 301.