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Chameleons are represented in Madagascar by three endemic genera: Brookesia, Calumna and Furcifer. The genera Furcifer has 18 species.
Panther chameleons are regularly found inside primary eastern rainforest but are generally much more abundant in secondary habitat such as plantations and low degraded scrub at an altitude of 80-950 m.
The tail is prehensile, having the effect of a “fifth hand” allowing the chameleon to hang quite safely by it alone. Its “hesitant” method of walking, with its peculiar fore-and-aft swaying action, helps it to avoid detection and to judge distances.
Its vision is excellent. Its conical eyes can be moved independently of each other, swivelling like miniature gun-turrets through almost 180 degrees without moving the head. This is its best skill to find its prey. When it has identified its prey, it uses its long, flexible tongue, which can extend to a length equal to the entire body. At its tip, the tongue bears a sticky pad which adheres to any surface of an insect. The contraction of special muscles within the tongue rapidly propels it towards the prey, which is snared by a combination of the tongue's sticky mucous coating and a vacuum created by muscles in the tip. Madagascar’s largest chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti, can deal with very large prey and even small birds such as the red fody, Foudia madagascariensis.
Chameleons can change colour with astonishing speed, but contrary to common belief this is not in response to a changing background; they are affected by a complex combination of external and internal clues (light intensity, temperature and emotional state - for example fighting for territories or mating). Male panther chameleons have uniform striking blue-green, emerald-green or turquoise bodies. By contrast, females are mostly dull, uniform grey, brown or faint green, except during breeding, when receptive females become pale or vivid orange to pink, later changing to black, with bright orange or pink vertical bars when gravid. Like many other chameleon species, the panther chameleon’s head extends at the rear into a raised bony prominence known as a “casque”.
The period of reproduction seems to correspond with the rainy season (October to March). Some changing aspects of the weather or perhaps day length stimulates hormonal functions and triggers sexual behaviour. Males become even more vividly coloured during this period. The mature male panther chameleon establishes a territory, which is defended from other males, and offers a site where courtship can take place. When a female is encountered exhibiting receptive colouration, the male commences courtship behaviour, which includes an increase in colour intensity and nodding of the head. Over a period of minutes to days after mating, the female acquires the striking, non-receptive colouration, and will make threat displays consisting of opening the mouth wide and rocking, to any courting males that approach.
At the end of the two to three week gestation period, the female lays a clutch of on average 16 to 20, and up to 40, eggs enclosed in a fibrous envelope that can quickly dry out when exposed to the dry air. The Panther chameleon digs its nest in bare ground to a depth of about 10cm. Once the eggs are laid the soil is replaced; the female then tramples the spot and presses the soil around the eggs. Finally, she covers the spot with dry leaves, sticks or grass. The entire process can take a whole day. The eggs take between six and twelve months to hatch and the newborns then clamber to the surface. Sexual maturity is reached after around five months, and the maximum lifespan in the wild is two years.
There are a wide variety of cultural beliefs concerning these reptiles according to each region and tribal group of Madagascar.
Some consider it to be a symbol of intelligence. It is a slow, physically weak but seemingly bright animal. One Malagasy fable says: “The bush pig and the chameleon wanted to decide who was the strongest. The bush pig being bigger and stronger thought the chameleon would never be able to beat him. They started the race and the chameleon jumped onto the boar’s neck and when it was close to crossing the line jumped across the finish line. The chameleon won.” Intellectual capacity can beat physical strength.
They also consider the small dwarf chameleon of genus Brookesia to be an evil spirit; which is why people call it ramilaheloka (“troublemaker”). Some ethnics avoid harming or touching this animal for fear that bad things or evil will happen to them.