Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Chameleons in Morro Bay!!

I heard a rumor a while back that there is a population of chameleons living in Morro Bay, California. That's right, chameleons-- which are native to the Old World. There is an entry showing the chameleons on a California herp website, including some photos from Cal Poly students back in the 90's. Apparently 10 captive Jackson's chameleons were accidentally released in Morro Bay during a raid by a regulatory agency, and established a population because the climate (alternately foggy and sunny, never too hot) is similar to their native climate at high elevation spots in Africa.

My students put flyers in mailboxes, and many residents called me to confirm that yes indeed, they have seen chameleons in their yards over the years. So on the day after Thanksgiving, we went out a stared at branches all afternoon in the hopes of finding one.

Success! Craig found a female Jackson's chameleon sitting about head-height (well, Craig's head-height, which is actually freakishly high) on a branch in a Cal Poly professor's front yard.

We took the chameleon home and put her in my ficus tree to hang out. She tended to stay there pretty well (aside from one instance in which I returned home to find her across the house in my bed. ? ).

Chameleons are strange animals. For one thing, they tend to move extremely slowly, which has inspired an interesting legend in the A-Louyi tribe of the Upper Zambesi. Interestingly, it somewhat resembles our tortoise and the hare fable, but the consequences are much more dire and in this one the hare wins! The chameleon is the messenger of life and the hare is the messenger of death, but the chameleon is slow and keeps "constantly turning about," so the hare arrives first, and "That is why, when men die, they die once for all."

Here's the full text of the legend:

They say that Nyambe, whom they identify with the sun, used to dwell on earth with his wife Nasilele, whom they identify with the moon. But Nyambe retired to heaven from fear of men. Whenever he carved wood, men carved it also ; when he made a wooden plate, so did they. After he had withdrawn to the sky, it happened that Nyambe's dog died. He loved the animal, and said, "Let the dog live." But his wife said, " No, I won't have it. He's a thief." Nyambe still persisted. " For my part," said he, " I love my dog." But his wife said, " Throw him out." So they threw him out. By and by Nyambe's mother-in-law died, and his wife said to him, " Let her live," just as Nyambe himself had said to her about his dog. But Nyambe answered, " No, let her die and be done with it. I said to you that my dog should live, and you refused. It is my wish that your mother should die for good and all." So die she did for good and all. After that the husband and wife sent two messengers, a chameleon and a hare, to men on the earth. To the chameleon they said, " When thou art come to men, say to them, ' Ye shall live'; but as for thee, O hare, when thou art come to men, say to them, ' Ye shall die once for all.'" The chameleon and the hare set off with their messages. Now the chameleon, as he went, kept constantly turning about, but the hare ran. So the hare arrived first, and said that men should die once for all. Having delivered his message, the hare returned. That is why, when men die, they die once for all.

From Folk-Lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend & Law by Sir James George Frazer


Anonymous said...

Dude, this is a fledgling population, why in gods name did you remove an adult!? I live in Morro Bay, have seen them, and have left them alone. you're screwing around with a rare and delicate thing here... put it back!

Anonymous said...

This is a nonnative species. Their numbers have actually been declining over the past two decades or so, primarily due to tree-removal and predation by cats. There is never a compelling reason to lovingly protect a population of nonnative species. That said, I don't believe that this particular invasion constituted much threat to any native animals, and I agree that it's pretty cool to have them locally.

Dog Breeds said...

Its an invasive species. Our native species have a hard enough time competing without throwing some random chameleons into the mix.

I would have taken a specimen home myself. Perfectly legal, especially if you have a california fishing license.


I go to cal poly snakeymama, I should stop by sometime and say hello.

Anonymous said...

Hard to know in advance whether an introduction constitutes a threat to native species so you have to assume that most will, even introductions of cool animals. No question that it adds a new dimension to any ecosystem, a dimension that the ecosystem didn't have the luxury of handling during its own evolution with native species. If they would stay in front yard hedges perhaps it wouldn't be so bad, but they usually move out in the countryside and from there anything is possible. Just ask Florida, Hawaii, or New Zealand. I wish you had found and removed all of them.

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Unknown said...

While it is easy to understand an emotional, non-scientific reaction to the recent establishment of an interesting exotic species such as Jackson's chameleons, so far from their native habitat where they're integrated into the ecosystem and have evolved for millions of years, we also need to step back and look closely and carefully at impacts and potential impacts on native prey species. I have worked with the Hawaiian populations of Jackson's chameleons for years, and although the species has been established in Hawaii for decades, due to an accidental pet release in the early 1970's, it took until 2010 to scientifically document and publish the fact that they are having a negative impact on native invertebrates and causing environmental damage. In Hawaii they are eating endangered species. We know that this species optimizes its feeding strategy by diversifying its prey choices. In other words it eats as many different things as are available. As unpleasant as it may appear, until someone opens up some wild caught specimens up from Morro Bay and examines gut contents, impacts will remain unknown. Bottom line, while it's fine to keep exotic pets in a responsible manner, tropical high elevation predatory lizards from East Africa have no business living in the wild in California. For more information on the Hawaiian invasion by Jackson's chameleons, see: 2010 Holland, B.S. S.L. Montgomery, V. Costello. A reptilian smoking gun: first record of invasive Jackson’s chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus) predation on native Hawaiian species. Biodiversity and Conservation 19(5):1437-1441.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but I find the whole notion of chameleons being "scientifically negative" as something extremely hypocritical. You know what's much more negative than chameleons, as far as nature and the ecosystem is concerned? Our housing system, why don't we change the way we build houses? Why don't we reduce the pollution produced by cars?

That's much more bigger than some chameleons. Furthermore, I just find it extremely hypocritical that human beings -whom have killed more life than any other species on this planet- actually have a say on why chameleons are "negative" to native life. It's an offensive and hypocritical notion when you consider that "native" Americans were ruthlessly disposed of their land and then killed off systematically.

Chameleons are cool and interesting animals, it is inevitable that chameleons will be on sale, and it is inevitable that people who love exotic animals, will intentionally release chameleons into the wild, in an effort to kick-start a local population.....

Inevitable.... it doesn't matter if you catch all the chameleons that you see, for each one that you catch, another female gave birth to 8 to 30 live young, you cannot stop it, and the effort it would require to realistically stop such an inevitable occurrence, is in itself disconnected from reality itself: we have much bigger problems to worry about, wasting our time worrying about some Jackson Chameleons being negative to some local animals, at a time when we have much bigger problems such as global warming, is just ridiculous.

Life isn't perfect, we've killed off entire human societies in the past, an "invasion" of Jackson Chameleons being negative for some native animals, is such a small claim in comparison to what human beings have done in the last 500 years. At the end of the day, by the very same principle, I believe that scientists studying the "invasion" of Jackson Chameleons in Hawaii, at a time when we have much bigger things to worry about, is indeed negative to the human species as a whole genre, and indeed negative towards the planet itself..... So perhaps something to consider before suggesting that any responsible person should "open up" the next wild chameleon that they see. I wonder what the human response would be if the roles were reversed, and it was an alien species that wanted to "open up" the next wild human they see on the loose.

And of course, any human being who considers himself a scientist, should consider the fact that chameleons were brought here by humans, and therefore, the claim of a "chameleon invasion" is not actually valid, because chameleons have not invaded anything, humans brought them here, and they are merely surviving by any means necessary, which is the primordial instinct of any animal, including humans.

So anyways, bottom line as far as I'm concerned, we -human beings- are a much bigger threat to local fauna than chameleons could ever be, let the chameleons alone, we have much bigger things to worry about, and then again, it's not their fault that humans brought them here in the first place.

Chameleons said...

I'm actually currently writing a blog post about chameleons establishing populations in North America, and I knew they were established in Hawaii and Florida, but wasn't sure about California (I had heard rumors). Sure enough, I found your site with a google search! Thanks for the verification!