Common Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) conservation in Andalusia, Spain

The chameleon family (Chamaeleonidae) comprises about 100 species. Even though their shapes, colors and habits are very different, all species share common features such as zygodactylous feet, colour change, projectile tongue and independently moving, stereoscopic eyes
Chameleons are found mostly in Africa, Madagascar and in the Arabian Peninsula, inhabiting both rainforests and sub arid areas. However, one particular species has found a favorable habitat in the Mediterranean.
The common chameleon (Chamaeleo Chamaeleon) has, in fact, a circum-Mediterranean distribution. Its range includes the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, Turkey, the Peloponnese, the islands of Cyprus, Crete, Samos, and Chios, Malta and according to some, even Sicily and Apulia in Italy.

Figure 1 : Specimen of common chameleon found in the dunes of Chipiona ( Cadiz )

The northern edge of the common chameleon range includes five Spanish provinces of the autonomous community of Andalusia (Almeria , Granada , Malaga, Cadiz and Huelva) and the province of Faro in Portugal . Common chameleon populations in Andalusia occupy a total area of about 450 km2 , located mainly in the province of Malaga (320 km2 with up to 30 animals per hectare of surveyed land ) .The second and third most populated provinces are Cadiz (75 km2) and Huelva ( 30 km2 )

As mentioned above, the area with the highest chameleon density is Malaga. Here, the Centre for the Conservation and Recovery of the Common Chameleon (part of the Biodiversity Control Centre) was founded in 2010 by the Municipality of Malaga.
This centre deals with the recovery of chameleons found injured or in poor physical condition in urban areas. Animals kept in the centre receive the necessary veterinary care followed by a period of semi- captivity in large outdoor cages with native vegetation, before being reintroduced into their natural habitat (Mediterranean shrub land, pine forests, non dense secondary forests).

Figure 2: Indoor area of the Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad (photo owned by the Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad - Ayuntamiento de Málaga)

The Centre is in fact composed of two areas, an indoor first aid area and an outdoor area for acclimation. The indoor area consists in a large warehouse equipped with screen cages, glass terrariums (all well planted with spot and UVB lamps), veterinary equipment and an incubator.
The outdoor area consists in an open space set with native Mediterranean vegetation. There are two large screen cages that allow chameleons to re acclimate after the necessary captivity period when they receive vet care. Here, chameleons can feed off the same insects they would find in the wild, without the risk of predation by birds of prey or other animals.

Figure 3: The Centre’s Outdoor Area (photo owned by the Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad - Ayuntamiento de Málaga)

During 2012 only, forty nine chameleons were recovered and reintroduced in two protected areas near Malaga. In addition to these, in the same year, 8 babies were born from a pregnant female that laid her eggs in the acclimation area before being reintroduced. This year, two males and four females were released in June, while in August three males and three females were reintroduced. Furthermore, there will probably be another reintroduction this October.

Figure 4: Reintroduction of a female common chameleon (photo owned by the Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad - Ayuntamiento de Málaga)

I visited the Centre at the end of June and I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Joaquin Santaolalla, the veterinarian in charge of the chameleons’ rescue. A very competent professional as well as a true chameleon enthusiast! He told me that last December another recovering female had laid her eggs in the outdoor area and a few days ago he informed me that the eggs have hatched and 33 little chameleons will be re-introduced next spring!

Figure 5: Thirty-three common chameleon babies born in August 2013 in the Centre

Figure 6: Common chameleon baby hatched in June 2013 just a few days before my visit!

It’s very important to help gravid females and juveniles because, in the wild, this species’ life span rarely exceeds two years. Most of these animals live through only one or two breeding seasons, therefore, it is essential for conservation purposes that matings are successful and babies reach reproductive age.

Figure 7: Pregnant females with burns on her hind legs (photo owned by the Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad - Ayuntamiento de Málaga)

Figure 8: The centre’s incubator (photo owned by the Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad - Ayuntamiento de Málaga)

Studies also show that the survival of this species is highly dependent on human activity in the area. Implementing organic farming and an environmentally sustainable tourism could be of great help to Andalusian chameleons. Making sure that native vegetation and nesting grounds are not destroyed by construction and agriculture is also vital. Furthermore, the creation of barriers to prevent animals from crossing the busiest roads could solve the road-kills problem, especially in the summer, when many chameleons are hit by cars as they wander in search of mates or nesting areas. These barriers won’t isolate populations because chameleons would still have points of contact in areas with less traffic. However, more detailed studies on the movements of these populations are needed in order to create an appropriate conservation strategy. Habitat conservation, traditional land use, reduction of road kills and illegal collections as well as repopulation programmes based on captive hatching and “head starting” babies, are thought to be effective strategies for the common chameleon.

Figure 9: Baby chameleon just entered in the outdoor area (photo owned by the Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad - Ayuntamiento de Málaga)

Another area where there are important common chameleon populations is the province of Cadiz, especially in the area of Chipiona - Costa Ballena. This year I lived near the province of Cadiz for three months, and I was lucky enough to spot some chameleons in their natural habitat and to get in touch with the people involved in chameleon conservation.

Figure 10: Wild specimen encountered in the dunes of Chipiona (Cadiz)

Until about 30 years ago these areas were very rich in biodiversity, then the construction boom arrived and up to the early 2000s the building industry dictated the development policies without much care for the environment.
However, things are finally changing and thanks to the nearby “Doñana” national park (a huge protected area where the last specimens of Iberian lynx in the region are found), the interest for the area’s environmental resources is rising. A few months ago, precisely on June 5th in conjunction with the world Environment Day, the "Centro de Interpretación de la Naturaleza y el Litoral” (Interpretation centre of the coastal environment) was inaugurated. This centre is dedicated to the chameleon, elected as charismatic species representative of the delicate ecosystem of the coast.

Figure 11: Sign of the “El Camaleón “Centre in Chipiona (Cadiz)

It is, in fact, called “El Camaleón" and includes two permanent multimedia exhibitions, one on the biology and ecology
of the common chameleon and one on sustainable fishing techniques (dating back to before the Romans) which are, nowadays, a cultural heritage to preserve.
Built in a sustainable way, with an architecture that respects the traditional forms, the centre also has a conference room, a lab and two study rooms.

Figure 12: Overall view of the “El Camaleón “Centre in Chipiona (Cadiz)

The centre is run by a group of volunteers (Grupo Ecologista CANS) who works hard for the preservation of their environment and of the chameleons, above all. As a biologist and reptile enthusiast, my main goal would be to establish collaboration between these two centres in order to carry out studies and chameleon conservation projects in the Cadiz area, similar to those that are taking place in Malaga.

Thanks to Dr. Santaolalla from Malaga and to Benito Ruiz head of the CANS group of Chipiona, between September and October there will be a meeting to set up collaboration between the two centres. The idea is that the Malaga centre could offer theoretical and practical knowledge for chameleon conservation while the other centre could give visibility to the project and provide infrastructures and collaboration to create a conservation “alliance” that could eventually extend to other provinces of Spain that host common chameleon populations.

Concluding, I want to clarify that the chameleon rescue centre in Malaga has received a great help from a Spanish chameleon owners’ forum who helped by sending terrariums, plants and live food purchased with money donated by forum users. In the references section you can find the link to the forum’s page(in Spanish) that show what can be achieved when people share their passion and work together for a common goal . If anyone shares my enthusiasm for this initiative and wants to co operate or donate, you can easily send an email in Spanish or English to one of the addresses in the “contacts section” or even to me.
I hope you found my report interesting and please feel free ask as many questions as you want, I will be happy to further explain and show the great work this guys are doing!

Figure 13: Giant model of common chameleon by the entrance of the “El Camaleón “Centre in Chipiona


Centro de Control de la Biodiversidad del Área de Medio Ambiente del Ayuntamiento de Málaga:
Grupo Ecologista CANS Chipiona:
Foro Camaleon Saurios: FORO DE CAMALEONES

Habitat selection of the common chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) (L.) in an area under development in southern Spain: implications for conservation
José A. Ho dar*, Juan M. Pleguezuelos, Juan C. Poveda Biological Conservation 94 (2000) 63±68
The double origin of Iberian peninsular chameleons
OCTÁVIO S. PAULO1*, ISABEL PINTO1, MICHAEL W. BRUFORD2,WILLIAM C. JORDAN3 and RICHARD A. NICHOLS4 Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2002, 75, 1–7. With 2 figures
El camaleón en Andalucía. Distribución actual y amenazas para su supervivencia
MELLADO, J., GIMENEZ, L., GÓMEZ, J.J., & M. SANJUÁN. (2001):Fundación Zoilo-Ruiz Mateos. Colección Rabeta Ruta, 6.
Spanish national inventory on road mortality of vertebrates. Global Biodiversity 5, 15±17.
Caletrio, J., Ferna ndez, J.M., Lo pez, J., Roviralta, F., 1996.
El Camaleón n común (Chamaeleo chamaeleon L.) en Andalucía: distribución n y conservación) Cuadrado, M., Rodríguez, M., 1990. Junta de Andalucía, Sevilla.
Comportamiento reproductor del Camaleón común (Chamaeleo chamaeleon L.) en el sur de España
Fernandez, F., 1989. a. DonÄ ana Acta Vertebrata 16, 5±13.
Foro camaleón saurios:
Chameleon reintroductions June and August 2013
Suelta camaleón común Junio 13
Suelta camaleón común Agosto 13
Resultados donación Centro (fotos)
Hatching August 2013
Nacen 33 camaleones en el Centro
Ayuntamento de Malaga Área de Medioambiente y sostenibilidad, Centro Control de Biodiversidad:
Chamaeleo chamaeleon biology (2012)
Yearly report about the Centre’s activities (2012)
Study on the ecology of common chameleon populations in the Malaga area(2012)[/QUOTE]