The panther chameleon of Madagascar has always been considered as a single species by wildlife experts, but a new study suggests that these giant lizards are in fact eleven unique species.
Endemic in different parts of the southeast African country, these color-changing reptiles are set apart from other chameleons by their large size. Male panther chameleons are known to grow up to 17 inches in length, with some even reaching up to 19 inches long.
Panther chameleons can often be found in large numbers along the coast of Madagascar, especially in northern, north-western, north-eastern and central-eastern regions. Several species have also been discovered living in areas in Mauritius and La Réunion.
Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) in Switzerland conducted an in-depth analysis of the chameleons based on the variations of their colors as well as the molecular phylogeography concerning the lizard species.
UNIGE Professor Michel Milinkovitch and his team of biologists collected samples of blood from 324 different panther chameleons living in areas covered by their species distribution, and they also took high-resolution photographs of the color variation of the lizards for documentation.
The researchers sequenced and studied the nuclear DNA and mitochondrial structure of each chameleon they documented.
"The genetic material indicated strong genetic structure among geographically-restricted lineages, revealing very low interbreeding among populations," the UNIGE researchers said.
"The mathematical analyses of the 324 photographs demonstrated that subtle color patterns could efficiently predict assignment of chameleon individuals to their corresponding genetic lineage, confirming that many of the geographical populations might need to be considered separated species."
The UNIGE scientists made use of a classification key in which they simplified the study of the chameleon's color diversity in order to link the lizards to other species by mere sight.
They believe this technique can help trade managers and biologists in preventing over-harvesting of local chameleon population.
The researchers explained that managing biodiversity is a difficult task because of the rampant destruction of natural animal habitats that goes on in different areas. They pointed out that forests are often ruined as part of local farming practices as well as charcoal and firewood production mostly by people who have poor standards of living.
The University of Geneva study is published in the journal Molecular Ecology.