Exotic South Florida Part III: The Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti) in Florida

14 Jul

Some new stuff coming soon, including some more equipment reviews, but this for now: a few pictures and narrative on the invasive Oustalet’s Chameleons that are established in Dade County, FL.

The second species “officially” recognized (published) in the family Chameleonidae in Florida, though as many as half a dozen or more species of Chameleon are likely present/established in Florida.

Chameleons are good candidates for invasive species in Florida, because many species are hardy and can thrive here, and they are common and valuable in the pet trade. This has lead to a number of collectors setting up “ranches” or “Cash crops” of them in various areas, only to return in later years and collect free, healthy offspring of the original seeds.

Although it is easy to point the finger at these collectors, it’s also advisable to remember that most of these populations were likely started before there was general public knowledge of the harm that invasive species can cause to an ecosystem. That said, the issues with Chameleons in Florida are many: especially given that many of the populations are on private land and because of their monetary value some individuals will trespass and cause landowners to become hostile, often even to law abiding herpers/biologists/collectors/etc. who search from the road.

That silliness aside, on to some Oustalet’s ecology!

The population in Dade is likely pretty widespread, because Oustalet’s are known to cover a lot of ground when they decide to disperse. They will eat (almost) anything they can fit into their mouth, and considering they grow to be tied for the largest chameleon species, that’s quite a bit – including small birds. Here’s a adult male for size reference:

They are most definitely “beefy” chameleons, and like most chameleons grow extremely quickly. I’m personally amazed at how they’ve done so well in Dade County considering their egg incubation time is nearly a year! One would think that fire ants, torrential rains or bitter drought would overcome the clutch at some point during the year. Their clutch size can easily be up to and over 60 eggs.

In their native range (Madagascar) they primarily inhabit ecotones (edge habitats) and disturbed areas – which happens to be their primary haunts here in Florida as well.

Efforts are underway, spearheaded by FWC, to assess the impact of this species in Florida. Fortunately, this species seems to survive a lot better in disturbed (read: already screwed-up) areas than in pristine habitat, but more study will be needed to be certain.


6 responses to “Exotic South Florida Part III: The Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti) in Florida

  1. Tamara Ducote

    14/07/2011 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the great info. Surprised by egg incubation time! Love the photos of these beautiful animals.

  2. Tom J

    12/12/2011 at 7:44 pm

    1) I am old enough to know ( and have been involved with local herp industry for over 20 years in FL, and more than 35 years nationally) no one can claim ignorance of exotics impacts. However, many use it as a copout (claim ignorance).In my opinion FWC does the same and does not do a good job bringing those to justice for “biological pollution”. Yes there are a lot of “cases” of small dealers etc, but not a reduction of sale of EX: pythons (lionfish etc) when “we are spending tax payer dollars to remove them, while still supplying the pathway > source (pet shops>people)”.

    2) this just again shows that “prediction of invasiveness” by even the most “well read/published” scientists is not possible. These chams survived the freeze of winter 2009-2010 where many of our inshore fishes (and more iguanas) died in the cold. These lizards are not outfitted to “burrow” (even though they bury eggs) so unless someone comes up with some extraordinary behavioral adaptation – they are living outside their temp rages. This is similar to capybaras in Tallahassee, or lionfish living 30% larger in Atlantic vs home range etc. etc… (I have a lot of examples). If one does not have “clairvoyance” how can such be “predicted” based on prior publications (that don’t exist concerning basic life history for most species)

    3) Just like all other more “injurious” exotics (ex pythons) – they are still sold. So FWC and others do not want to take a stand on “high risk” species proactively under the guise of “we are waiting to read the new wording on Lacey act”. (2008—–today).

    For me it is not “the chameleon” that worries me, it is the microbes it picked up at the importer, pet shop, home vivaria where now our natural wild life is being exposed to such (without any way to look currently). Remember the American chestnut tree……

    I cannot tell you how many times I have heard (including in this case) ” we know who it is we just don’t have enough to prosecute”. This is a state (county Dade) where technically no one happens to know who’s mamba is missing after a 2009 fall bite of acomcast cable guy:
    …or whose Nile crocodile is missing IE showed up at Fruit and Spice Park Nov 2011:

    Why are such dangerous (exotic) animals not registered> (great you have a locking cage can you say HURRICANE)? Wouldn’t it be good to know (unlike when Andrew hit) which house has a collection of venomous snakes, or properties that have nile crocodiles(?!) as examples.

  3. Josh

    12/12/2011 at 9:24 pm

    Hey Tom,

    Thanks for your response. I enjoy the heck out of it when there’s dialogue

    1.) I wouldn’t go that far. The effects of any given species that is released is unknown until it actually happens, as a general rule of all the exotics released only 10% will survive, 10% of those will reproduce, and 10% of those will become invasive. Take the Red-Headed Agamas for example: they thrive in disturbed habitat and (as far as yet proven) have minimal negative impact as they eat small invertebrates (themselves mostly invasive) and probably only compete with other exotic lizards. I’d say that only in the past few years has a huge exotic reptile problem emerged (the Burms), so saying across the board that every herp-dealer/collector/importer/hobbyist fully knows the possible ramifications of their actions is unlikely: Understanding has certainly increased in the past five or so years though. Besides, the pythons are, in my opinion, not likely from irresponsible owners who could be brought to justice (and if they were, they’d probably be minors anyway); but from a small number (probably a singular) collector who wanted to establish a cash crop at Flamingo. And the Lionfish are undoubtedly not within FWC’s jurisdiction to point fingers: word on the street is (this coming from a professor who’s big in the hobbyist and professional fish community) that they came from a Bahamas Aquarium with a open-sea water filter.

    2.) I think you’re right: you can’t accurately predict invasiveness prior to the actual establishment. Well, accurately at least. I think we can all agree that an exotic population of a new warm-temperate ant species would fare better than koalas.

    3.) Yes, but they are highly regulated. Besides, that brings in a whole big dance of politics and economics and other such philosophy. I personally am an invasive species biologist and am against bans.

    And in regards to microbes: emerging infectious diseases certainly are potential problems, though I’d argue that reptiles are among the most resistant to these.

    And, that’s the beauty of our criminal justice system: if you can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person is guilty, they go free. On the other hand, I think you could make an excellent case for monetary penalties against certain importers for release of exotic wildlife. And the mamba bite probably wasn’t a mamba bite: they gave him a ridiculously small amount of antivenin (like 2 vials, I think) which is no where near enough to treat a Mamba bite. He was probably bitten by a Opheodrys – Occum’s Razor.

    I agree, certainly, that exotic species can be (and have been, as the case with the Burmese Pythons) a problem. But the solution (if one exists) is likely a case-by-case best management practice and not blanket bans. I personally am against a registry: it could never be properly managed and wouldn’t really help anything other than give exotic animal owners the choice of more bureaucracy or breaking the law.

    Thanks again for your reply: like I said – I enjoy a good debate.

  4. Matt

    24/03/2012 at 8:48 pm

    Its funny how up in arms we get over “invasive animals”, we love to forget who the most destructive “invasive species” is in North America. Us.

  5. Jeremy A. Rich

    04/08/2013 at 7:13 am

    As a matter of detail what are the other species of chameleons that are suspected as being established in Florida? Why has Florida not made any attempts to remove these invasive species similar to how wildlife officials removed Veilded Chameleons in Maui.

  6. Josh

    04/08/2013 at 11:08 pm

    Matt – I don’t think humans can justifiably be classified as an invasive species. To do that would be to ignore that fact that humans act on an individual level and have individual wills and opinions and our impact on the environment is not uniform across the board. Do we have the potential to cause damage to native habitats? Sure, and it has happened and continues to happen all over the world. But we also have the unique potential to learn from our mistakes and to actually improve habitats in some cases – and this also involves the ascertainment that humans are only equally important as animal and/or plant life. Now, I believe biodiversity to be important, and I believe it is one of our jobs to care for wildlife and its habitat as best we can; but I do believe that human life is intrinsically more valuable than animal life; so as such I disagree with a “humans are worthless” worldview.

    Jeremy – There are several possibilities, but it’s hard to know what’s actually here as most of the populations are only known by a couple of people (i.e. whoever set up the populations). Jacksons, Graceful and Senegal chameleons are all extremely likely. In terms of removal attempts; there have been some with the Oustalet’s Chameleon, but there are a few problems; mostly a.) they’re pretty difficult to get rid of once established, b.) many of the populations occur in part on private land, and many of the landowners don’t want people searching their property; and perhaps most importantly c.) I don’t think anyone’s made a good case that they are invasive, or at least invasive enough to be a legitimate concern. They’re a cool species, so interesting to study, but not detrimental to the ecosystem.


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