Leaf chameleon (Brookesia tristis)

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Brookesia tristis on a leaf

Top facts

  • A miniscule chameleon species, Brookesia tristis is one of the smallest reptiles in the world.
  • Brookesia tristis was first described as a new species in 2012, and is known from just one small area in northern Madagascar.
  • Like other Brookesia chameleons, Brookesia tristis uses its tail like a ‘fifth leg’ when walking.
  • Brookesia tristis was given its scientific name, which means ‘sad’, to highlight the fact that its entire known range is under threat from deforestation.
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Leaf chameleon fact file

Leaf chameleon description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderSquamata
FamilyChamaeleonidae
GenusBrookesia (1)

A tiny chameleon found in just one small area of Madagascar, Brookesia tristis belongs to a group of miniscule chameleon species which rank among the smallest reptiles in the world. This miniature animal was only formally described as a new species as recently as 2012 (1).

Brookesia tristis is typically a dull brown to beige colour, with faint brown bars that radiate from the eyes to the sides of the head. When stressed, this species may develop a light grey stripe along its back. Juveniles of Brookesia tristis have similar colouration to the adults, while the adult female Brookesia tristis can be distinguished from the adult male by its larger size and by the narrower base to its tail (1).

Like other leaf chameleons (Brookesia species), Brookesia tristis has a short, non-prehensile tail which is used like an extra leg, providing stability as the chameleon walks (1) (4). This species’ body is covered in small spines and tubercles, and there are slight crests on its head. Brookesia tristis can be distinguished from other similar-looking Brookesia species by various aspects of its size and appearance, as well as by distinct genetic differences (1).

Size
Male total length: 30.7 - 31.3 mm (1)
Female total length: 31.4 - 36.5 mm (1)
Male snout-vent length: 18 - 18.2 mm (1)
Female snout-vent length: 18 - 23.8 mm (1)
Weight
c. 0.18 - 0.21 g (1)
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Leaf chameleon biology

This newly discovered species is typically found foraging among the leaf litter on the forest floor during the day, but climbs up onto small branches to sleep at night (1) (5). Brookesia tristis has been found sleeping on low branches between 5 and 50 centimetres above the ground (1). No information is currently available on the diet of this species.

Although relatively little is known about the breeding behaviour of Brookesia tristis, one female has been recorded laying two large eggs in February. The eggs measured just 5.8 to 5.9 millimetres in diameter and hatched after 64 and 69 days respectively. The tiny juveniles of Brookesia tristis measured only 14 millimetres in length, and by 8 days old weighed only 0.03 grams (1).

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Leaf chameleon range

Brookesia tristis occurs at the extreme northern tip of Madagascar, where it is known only from a single location, in the Montagne des Français limestone massif (1).

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Leaf chameleon habitat

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Leaf chameleon status

Brookesia tristis has not yet been classified by the IUCN, but all Brookesia species are listed on Appendix II of CITES (2) (3).

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Leaf chameleon threats

Brookesia tristis is restricted to one tiny location, making its population particularly vulnerable to any disturbances to its habitat (5). The scientific name of this diminutive chameleon, tristis, means ‘sad’, and was chosen because the species’ entire known range is under threat from severe deforestation, despite being recently declared as a nature reserve (1).

The Montagne des Français is just 12 kilometres from the sprawling town of Antsiranana and is under pressure from clearance for agriculture, timber and charcoal production, and livestock grazing (6) (7). Sadly, this leaves many of the area’s unique species, including Brookesia tristis, with an uncertain future (6).

Many other Brookesia species are also threatened by collection for the pet trade, even in protected areas (3), but it is not yet known whether this is a problem for Brookesia tristis.

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Leaf chameleon conservation

In 2002, all Brookesia species were added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), with one species being added to Appendix I. This listing means that any international trade in these tiny chameleons should be carefully controlled (2) (3).

Further research has been recommended into the population sizes and population trends of Brookesia species, to better understand their conservation needs (3). The area where Brookesia tristis occurs, in the Montagne des Français, has been found to contain many unique species (6), and in 2008 was formally designated as a new reserve (7). Conservation International is working in the region to discourage logging and charcoal burning and to provide sustainable livelihoods for local people (7), which may go some way towards protecting endemic species such as Brookesia tristis.

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Find out more

Find out more about Brookesia tristis and its discovery:

More information on conservation in the Montagne des Français:

Learn more about newly discovered species on ARKive:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Deciduous forest
Forest consisting mainly of deciduous trees, which shed their leaves at the end of the growing season.
Endemic
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
Prehensile
Capable of grasping.
Tubercle
A small, rounded, wart-like bump on the skin or on a bone.
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References

  1. Glaw, F., Köhler, J., Townsend, T.M. and Vences, M. (2012) Rivaling the world’s smallest reptiles: discovery of miniaturized and microendemic new species of leaf chameleons (Brookesia) from northern Madagascar. PLoS ONE, 7(2): e31314. Available at:
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0031314
  2. CITES (January, 2013)
    http://www.cites.org/
  3. Carpenter, A.I. and Robson, O. (2005) A review of the endemic chameleon genus Brookesia from Madagascar, and the rationale for its listing on CITES Appendix II. Oryx, 39(4): 375-380.
  4. Zukerman, W. (2012) Zoologger: Itsy bitsy teeny weeny chameleons. New Scientist, 15 February. Available at:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21478-zoologger-itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-chameleons.html
  5. Davies, E. (2012) Tiny lizards found in Madagascar. BBC News, 15 February. Available at:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/17028940
  6. D’Cruze, N., Sabel, J., Green, K., Dawson, J., Gardner, C., Robinson, J., Starkie, G., Vences, M. and Glaw, F. (2007) The first comprehensive survey of amphibians and reptiles at Montagne des Français, Madagascar. Herpetological Conservation and Biology, 2(2): 87-99.
  7. Conservation International - Montagne des Français: A burning issue for conservation in Madagascar (January, 2013)
    http://www.conservation.org/FMG/Articles/Pages/montagne_des_francais_burning_issue_for_conservation_in_madagascar.aspx
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Image credit

Brookesia tristis on a leaf  
Brookesia tristis on a leaf

© Jörn Köhler

Jörn Köhler
Department of Zoology
Hessisches Landesmuseum
Friedensplatz 1
64283
Darmstadt
Germany
Fax: +49 (6151) 165765

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