New chameleon species showcase fragile biodiversity in Madagascar

A research team discovered 11 new species of chameleon that exist only in Madagascar. The findings also show how close to extinction many species are.

Courtesy of Michel Milinkovitch
Michel Milinkovitch and his research team created a classification key that breaks down the 11 different species of panther chameleon so they can be identified with the naked eye.

Once thought to be a single species, Madagascar's panther chameleon has been proven to be at least 11 separate species, according to a new study conducted by the University of Geneva.

Published in the journal Molecular Ecology, the study was conducted by genetics and evolution professor Michel Milinkovitch and a team of researchers in Madagascar. The study looked at chameleons’ changing coloring to determine where different species diverted and confirm that Madagascar is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth.

During two trips to the island, scientists collected a photograph and a blood sample from each of 324 individual panther chameleons. These samples were then used to test the hypothesis that the dominant color in the chameleon would correlate to its geographical population.

“The DNA (mitochondrial and nuclear) of each of the specimens were sequenced and analyzed in the laboratory,” the researchers wrote in a press release. “Most importantly, the genetic material indicated strong genetic structure among geographically-restricted lineages, revealing very low interbreeding among populations.”

By combining these findings with the photographs, the researchers realized that subtle differences in color and pattern could predict which species an individual chameleon belonged to. Milinkovitch and his team then simplified this data to make a classification key, allowing local biologists to distinguish between the different species with the naked eye.

“Given the charismatic nature of chameleons, Milinkovitch hopes that, in addition to a better understanding of the genetic basis of color variation in chameleons, his collaborative study with his Malagasy colleagues will help his colleague, Professor Raselimanana, to continue his difficult enterprise: raising awareness for the staggering but fragile biodiversity hosted by Madagascar,” the press release says.

Approximately 80 to 90 percent of all species found in Madagascar exist nowhere else on earth. However, widespread deforestation for firewood and charcoal production threaten 400 species of reptile, 300 species of amphibians, 300 species of birds, 15,000 species of plants and countless species of invertebrates.

Although humans have discovered only approximately 16 percent of the estimated 12 million species on earth, panther chameleons and many other newly discovered species are found to be endangered.

This is unsurprising considering that species are going extinct faster than nature is creating them.

"We now know for certain how much faster species are going extinct," said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University and president of the nonprofit conservation group Saving Species. As an example, Pimm told LiveScience that the planet should lose about one bird species every 1,000 years, but with human activities, at least 150 species of birds have gone extinct in the last 500 years.

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