Chameleons Day

Driving out of Antananarivo with my guide, Michel, which is pronounced “mee-shell,” as it would be in French.

It looked, felt, and acted like a real adventure, even though I had taken the precaution of telling the hotel manager where I was going and who I was going with. Michel’s vehicle was newish, and quite comfortable. His driving through the city made me crazy, and while I frequently – but quietly – gripped the armrests, we never hit anyone.

The region around Tana is called the highlands. It’s in the neighborhood of 1200 feet above sea level, and supports a lot of farming. Malagasy farmers grow a lot of rice, and the Malagasy eat a lot of rice. Meals are rice with vegetables and possibly meat, and a sauce made up of garlic, ginger, tomato, vanilla, coconut milk, curry powder, and green peppercorns, not all them all at the same time. But very good.

Banana trees grow everywhere.
Sometimes it seemed that everything grew everywhere.

The main roads in Madagascar – the national roads – are paved. After that, pavement is intermittent or non-existent. Sometimes there is no sign of gravel. It’s not much of a problem except when it rains, and then a road can become impassable.

The Reserve Peyrieras, founded by French entomologist Andre Peyrieras, is about an hour’s drive east of Tana on the N2 national road, and I recommend visiting it. The animals and reptiles are well-kept, and, as I learned later, trying to find a chameleon in the wild is extremely difficult. Natural camouflage is worn by survivors because it works.

The Reserve Peyrieras was our first stop.

The crocodile was fine, but the main attraction is the collection of chameleons. They are fascinating creatures. Chameleons as a species are not exclusive to Madagascar – same with the geckos – but some types are only found on Madagascar.

Many of the reptiles, chameleons and geckos in particular, are kept in several large greenhouse-type buildings, and they are free to roam within them. Tourists must be accompanied by a guide.

Chameleons are generally classified as “threatened” for the usual reasons – destruction of habitat and wild animal trafficking.

The longest-lived chameleons last about 10 – 12 years in the wild, and a couple years longer in a preserve. They are “ambush predators,” hiding in wait for an insect to come within range of their sticky tongues, which shoot out and nab their prey.

Male chameleons come in a range of sizes, from 5 inches to 24 inches, depending on the particular species, but most of them are about 14 – 18 inches. Males are slightly bigger than females, who, within the same kind of range, average just under 12 inches. Males and females mate, then the female lays eggs in a dug earth nest, covers them, and then the parents are done. Hatchlings dig out of the nest and fend for themselves.

All chameleons have “zygodactylous” feet, meaning they have two toes on their front feet and two toes on their back feet. To me, the toes don’t look like toes, rather their feet look as if they are split in half to wrap around the branches where they hide. Camouflage helps them find food and is their defense against their predators, which are birds and snakes.

When a chameleon finds itself on the ground, they walk with a rocking motion – step forward, lean back, step forward, lean back – which must be when they are most likely to become someone’s lunch, because it’s slow going. I never saw a chameleon walking fast, let alone running. They seem to be the sloths of the reptile world.

One eye forward and one eye backward seems to be the “default setting” for chameleons.
There are no predators in the greenhouses, so he can walk ‘n’ roll without fear.
According to the Reserve’s docent, chameleons curl their tails to primarily to maintain their balance as they move through the branches, but it can also be in response to a rival, to look bigger or smaller.

Chameleons use their ability to change color mainly to communicate, rather than to blend into their surroundings. They don’t change color because they’re angry, but to show a desire to mate or to fight a rival male, or as a sign of submission to one who may see them as a threat.

At rest or in a calm state, the nanocrystals in a chameleon’s dermis form a tight lattice, so they appear green or brown. They can do this because they have a couple of layers of skin.
When they’re tense, trying to fight off a rival or attract a mate, the nanocrystals will move apart, forming a loose lattice and showing off their brighter red and yellow colors. The change is not instantaneous, it takes some time.

Bright displays can signal strength – weaker males have duller colors. Speed and brightness of color change also communicate strength or weakness. When chameleons are feeling submissive, like trying to show that they are not a threat, they’ll turn a darker color.

Like most reptiles, chameleons regularly shed their skin – more frequently when they are young and growing, less frequently as adults. Eating the skin that is peeling speeds the process and provides some nutrition.

The eyes of a chameleon work independently. This guy (?) is looking at the camera with one eye, and looking behind himself with the other. I wonder how their brain makes sense of it – their viewable range is 360 degrees, but it’s not a single 360 degree view.

When chameleons detect an insect, they can turn their eyes and see their prey binocularly. They “lock” in their view and subsequently follow the insect by moving their entire head and not their eyes. When they sense a predator nearby, they hold their heads still and move only their eyes to avoid detection.

While I didn’t see clusters of chameleons, they are not anti-social. According to the docent, chameleons can remember and recognize faces.

The Reserve Peyrieras has more than chameleons. There are tomato frogs (they’re red, of course,) fruit bats, who live all over Madagascar, and some snakes – there are no dangerously poisonous snakes in Madagascar. The one kind of snake that has venom has fangs, but the fangs are toward the rear of their jaw, so biting a human is problematic. The tiny geckos were fun to look at.

A larger leaf-tailed gecko at rest – you can tell because they rest with their heads pointing down.
Golden Mantella frogs, a critically endangered species that lives only in central-eastern Madagascar. They live in groups that have 2x as many males as females, and eat insects.

When we left the reserve, it was almost lunchtime and we had some more distance to cover. If you are so inclined, you can follow the N2 National Road from Antananarivo going east, and find the Reserve Peyrieras along the way. When we left the reserve, we continued east to the Sahatandra River Hotel. You can find all of these on Google Maps.

Waiting for our turn on the bridge crossing the Mangoro River.
The Mangoro River
Lunch at the local cafe. Michel dropped me off here and then went off to eat somewhere else, or maybe in the kitchen, I don’t know.
A good sandwich and the local soda.

During this trip, I observed that the guides kept themselves separate from their clients at meals and, of course, at night. The places we stayed had separate dining rooms for guides, or at the least, clearly separate tables. I was a little concerned by this because the tourists are generally white and the guides are generally brown, but no one else was bothered by it, and I think here the real reason is that it serves as a “break time” boundary for the guides.

I never saw where Michel stayed, but I suspect the hotels and resorts had dormitory-like quarters for guides. There is a mutual support system for tour guides, restaurants, lodging, and the local park guides. Tour guides bring business so they get free room and board, and the local guides give a portion of whatever tips they get from the tourist to the tour guide.

Everywhere we went, the local people knew Michel. For his part, he arranged enjoyable lodging for me, with good meals, and looked for experienced local guides with good English. Whatever system they have worked out, worked for me.

The Sahatandra River Hotel guest cottages

We arrived at the hotel about an hour after lunch, and we had a free afternoon, which I used to unpack and relax after the bumpy ride. In the evening, Michel took me to Andasibe National Park, where I had an evening walk with a local guide for viewing wildlife. My night-time photography skills are limited, so I have only a few photos.

What am I looking at? The guides I met were wizards at spotting the creatures that live in Madagascar’s forests. Here, I’m looking at the smallest species of lemur in Madagascar, the Mouse lemur. It is in the lower-center of the photo. He (?) behind a twig, but he is mostly visible.

There are twenty species of Mouse lemur – they are the smallest primates in the world. Generally, they sleep during the day and forage for insects, fruit, leaves, and flowers at night. Their head and body measure about three inches, and their tails may be up to seven inches. Their entire self weighs about 1.6 ounces/45 grams.

The Mouse lemur again, this time in the upper center of the photo.
This is the Common Brown lemur. Like the Mouse lemur (and most other lemurs) they eat fruit, flowers, leaves, and some nectar and bark. Brown lemurs are “cathemeral,” meaning they are active both day and night throughout the year.
According to my guide, this little guy is sleeping. His eyes are closed, and he never moved, so I guess Pierre was right!

These two kinds of lemurs were mostly what we saw, with an occasional chameleon. As in other places, food resources are foraged by different animals at night than in the day. Michel promised I would see more tomorrow.

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