Panther chameleons are unique. Your average chameleon can change color, but the range is usually limited. Panther chameleons have a wide color range. Depending on where they live, the colors range from bright blue to red, orange and green.

A team of researchers traveled into the forests of Madagascar to study the species. It took two expeditions for the researchers to take pictures and collect blood samples from 324 panther chameleons.

The researchers believe the chameleon’s dominant color are related to the geographic area it is located in. Each specimen’s DNA was sequenced and analyzed based on this belief. The analysis also showed there was very low interbreeding among populations.

panther chameleon map

Researchers then looked at the photographs of each specimen. Mathematical analysis of the photographs showed “that subtle colour 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 separate species.”

Next, the researchers simplified the color analysis into a classification key. Using this, they could link nearly all the chameleons to their species just by looking at the photographs.

“This case of hidden speciation confirms a major characteristic of Madagascar: it is amongst the most diverse places for life on Earth; a biodiversity hotspot,” reads the press release.

The researchers also highlighted the threats facing this biodiversity hotspot. Right now, human activities (such as deforestation) are threatening 400 species of reptile, 300 species of amphibians, 300 species of birds and thousands of species of plants and invertebrates.

The situation is even more dire because nearly all living species in Madagascar are endemic. This means they are exclusive to Madagascar.

The researchers are giving their visual classification key to locals to help prevent population overharvesting.

The study was published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Image credit: Michel Milinkovitch

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