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Exotic South Florida Part V: The Veiled Chameleon (Chameleo calyptratus) in Florida

29 Jan

Well, based on the lovely statistics that WordPress sends me, most people find my blog by searching for “Chameleons,” it would seem. Well, there are other species other than the Oustalet’s Chameleons (which I’ve talked about previously) here in Florida. The most well known, and perhaps most dear to my heart, is the Veiled Chameleon. Well known because they are widespread (In at least 5 counties, by my reckoning); and dear to my heart because they are, in fact, the one animal species I have been shot at while looking for.

These chameleons from Yemen have been in the pet trade for a number of years. Though they can often be expensive and/or tedious to keep in captivity, they thrive in southern Florida for a number of reasons. Of course, food is typically abundant in the disturbed habitats where they thrive, and chameleons are slow, yet deadly predators; however the real thing that has a potential to limit their distribution is the cold weather. They can succumb to frigid temperatures just like any other reptile: Veiled Chameleons, however, have a trick up their sleeve. They have the ability to burrow down – up to several feet – under the ground, and will readily use this ability to find refuge from frost and extreme cold. There is yet another use for this magnificent adaptation: they will use the same excavation ability once full grown (which takes less than a year) to make a safe, temperature-buffered chamber in which to lay their dozens of eggs. And I mean ‘dozens’ most literally: one individual I found a few years ago laid about 70 eggs.

By one way or another, it seems the hardiness of these chameleons became well known and they began to be spread by helping hands across the southern peninsula of Florida and eventually some of the populations began to be published (See Krysko et al, 2004). And, once published these sites attracted many more visitors – some not observing the trespassing laws, jumping fences and wreaking havoc with concerned locals.

Interestingly enough, though these lizards are certainly exotic, at times hard to find, and can have voracious appetites; I haven’t seen any evidence as-of-yet to suggest that they are invasive. To be clear: an exotic species is not necessarily an invasive species. In fact, as far as is known the majority of exotic species that end up getting released into a new environment die off rather quickly, and a majority of those that do survive will not be able to find a mate and reproduce. But even if an animal is able to reproduce in the wild, it still may not meet the distinction of being invasive. According to the USDA, an invasive species is one that is “non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

Does the Veiled Chameleon meet these criteria? Perhaps it will be found to, but given the evidence at this point in time we cannot but sure, so it would be premature at best and completely false at worst to label them such. These are a species which thrive in disturbed habitats in Florida, habitat which is often comprised of mostly exotic plants to begin with; and even so it is not entirely known what they eat in Florida: many keepers of the species note their affinity for eating brown anoles in captivity, an invasive species itself, and a species for which the south Florida ecosystem would benefit from reduced numbers.

Now, I don’t make this argument as an activist of some sort who is “pro” having chameleons in the wild in Florida, I only wish to make the point that we do not know. It would be a mistake (and a common one) to assume that this lack of knowledge means that the Veiled Chameleon is a completely harmless exotic; and it would be equally foolish to assume that this is an invasive species here. For myself, the lack of knowledge more than anything is an invitation to let curiosity run wild and seek out the truth of the matter: to delve deep into the species, to watch and to study it. And hopefully one day, to know it – that is the essence of why I became a biologist in the first place.

Krysko, K. L., K. M. Enge, and F. W. King. 2004. The veiled chameleon, Chamaeleo calyptratus Duméril and Bibron 1851 (Sauria: Chamaeleonidae): a new exotic species in Florida. Florida Scientist 67:249-253.

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