The Earth-lion of India

Around the world it is infamous for a number of reasons. Some call it the curse of a king of old, some say it is the symbol of Satan himself, some call it a bad omen while some burry it to protect themselves from bad luck, some consider it to possess magical powers, and some call it the greatest prophesier.

Its personality (as perceived by humans) is as varied as the colours it adorns. It is probably the most highly specialized reptile on our planet, the Chameleon – literally Earth Lion (Chamai leon in Greek); and in this context, the Indian Chameleon, Chamaeleo zeylanicus.

It is with utmost curiosity and interest that I have been inspecting around trees and shrubs, for half-a-decade, to get a glimpse of this sole Chameleon of the Indian subcontinent, and on the dawn of a fresh winter morning, we met. As time passes it is only natural that the certain event you perceived in the past will happen sooner now than before. I have always carried this wish of seeing a Chameleon on all the explorations, in the back of my mind, and whenever someone told me they’d seen one in a specific location, I would become almost frantic to seek it out. It is a naturalists’ greatest pleasure to go on a sort-of a treasure hunt in nature, of seeking plants and animals which are rare or simply difficult to see, but most often you see it not when you seek it, but when you accidentally stumble upon it.

And on the dawn of a fresh winter morning in the Sahyadri, I stood over the edge of a Ghat that rose up to a plateau of the Sudhagad fort near Pali village, a sister fort of Sarasgad and a fort Shivaji Raje once adored. On this fort, which we scaled with the enthusiasm of a toddler running in a garden, I realized that its literal meaning, the Sweet Fort, is indeed true and holds true for its residents – upon which I will dwell later in the season.

As I stood over the edge of the Ghat, looking below into the valley, I glanced alongside the trees that stood over the edge, and found a startling green object that seemed most leaf-like for a moment. Then I looked again, and a long elastic band shot out of it and drew something into the leaf’s mouth. All this while I stood watching, my camera dangling by my neck. I gazed back into the distance and smiled to myself, and looked carefully back at the curious leaf.

It took me more than a few second to make out the shape of the creature I had always wished to see. An arched back, a serrated underside, bejeweled eyes, and studded emerald scales slowly stood out of the uniform greens around. A mouth, opening and closing, chewing onto something, further cleared my doubt. What’s amusing is that finding a Chameleon wasn’t even in the remotest corners of my mind on that morning. From then on it was only I and the Chameleon exploring one another.

It sat with its tail curled on a stick, its legs grabbing onto another, and its mouth busy munching upon a grasshopper.
On a fine October morning... Indian Chameleon (Chamaeleo zeylanicus
As I positioned myself on the sloping edge, the Chameleon felt my presence and quickly disappeared in a blink. I paused, stupefied. Surely it had seen me moving, but I wasn’t aware that it can disappear in thin air. After calling over a friend to find our shy friend, we discovered him hiding behind a leaf on its left.

The brilliant green he adorned was more than just a colour. It was one of his ultimate tools of trade – some take to fight-or-fright, Chameleons just disappear.

Talking about a Chameleon’s tools of trade is quite a list. To name a few distinguishing characters from other animals we know, the Chameleon can change its colour in a jiffy. Scientists are now beginning to understand this secret visual language. It is not just to camouflage as it was previously thought. Chameleons communicate with it. They flaunt it to woo their lovers; they jut it to warn a rival, and they change it to regulate their temperature – making them able to survive into the hottest deserts to the wettest forests where sun rarely ever shines.

Their tongue, as you’re aware, is expendable and is the ultimate weapon. It has been noted that smaller the Chameleon, longer its tongue, and vice versa (that is something worth looking at).
Going for a grab using its best zygodactylous foot first
The other adaptations unique for a Chameleon – whether arboreal or terrestrial, is their feet. These zygodactylous feet (two toes pointing forward, two backward) are almost hand-like, and exceptionally good not only for climbing trees but also for gripping it.
Using its fifth limb - the prehensile tail
Their tails also seem to possess a sense of their own. A prehensile tail is that which can hold onto something, something possessed by very few group of animals. Chameleons use it as their fifth limb as an extra precaution.
Looking back without having to move the head is peculiar only of Chameleons
The eyes of a Chameleon are probably its greatest adaptation. They move independent to the movement of the other, enabling them to perceive two things separately. While hunting, they lock both their eyes on the prey, and an excellent stereoscopic vision provides Chameleons a greater opportunity to hunt from far.
The Indian Chameleon in its element - climbing trees
What’s special about the Indian Chameleon is all of the above and more. It is the sole representative of the Indian subcontinent. The type locality is from Sri Lanka (hence the species name zeylanicus). They have now been recorded in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan as well. The Indian Chameleon does not dazzle in an array of colours, but sticks to the greens, browns and yellows. It is known to rely more on its colour for communication – showing anger or love, and for temperature regulation.

What’s even more intriguing, however – and a thought that has always puzzled me – is that it is the only representative of its kind in India. For this I went a few million(s) of years back in time but stood there still wondering why.
Climbing facing-down is easy for Chameleons
I’ve always considered India as the daughter of Africa, and Madagascar as the younger sister of India. Why, then, does Madagascar have over half of the yet-identified species of Chameleons, while India only one. One theory is that maybe chameleons evolved a little later in the evolutionary scale while India-and-Madagascar, both sisters, split, giving Madagascar a larger share of the species diversity. Unfortunately, the fossil records have not helped much in revealing their beginning on our planet. As per this wonderful article, the biogeographic history of this already-elusive reptile is still elusive.

To quote the article further:
“Fossils have only been found in Africa and Europe… The modern restricted distribution of the group in Africa, Southern Europe (southern Spain and Crete), Madagascar, Seychelles, Comoros, and Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan) suggests that the evolutionary radiation of chameleons may have been associated with the final breakup of Gondwana (an ancient continent once located in the southern hemisphere), during the separation of Africa, Madagascar, and Greater India, during the late Jurassic and Cretaceous period.”
Maybe – given their exceptional skills – they were packaged and dropped on our planet to exploit its invertebrate diversity. Maybe that’s why they are so elusive and surrounded by so many legends.

The interactions with our friend were brief. The habitat that we found him in is the most typical – but one of the varied places it is found in – the deciduous forests of Sahyadri. They’re also residents of the evergreens, the rainforests, and the thorny shrubs of Rajasthan.
In the dry-deciduous habitat of Sahyadri
I may sound arrogant of India’s advances in zoological explorations, but I’m sure India’s forests hide more Chameleons which are yet to be discovered – maybe they live high in the tree tops of the rainforests, or live amongst the leaf litter (see the tiniest one discovered earlier this year), or perhaps are so extremely specialized that they mimic the elements of the universe itself, that we've seen them but have left them unseen.

All the great skills bestowed upon the Chameleon are but a result of over a million-year old evolution – all a product of natural selection. Given a chance to evolve further down the road, it will become increasingly elusive for us to see – but that hope will not be fulfilled if we don’t stop believing in the superstitions that surround it.
The deciduous trees in the backdrop of agriculture fields and fragmented habitats
The direct threat to the Indian Chameleon is the disintegrating habitats – and although a Chameleon may go unnoticed in an urban forested area, fragmentation of habitats makes it increasing difficult for them to find mates and migrate to newer territories. Western Ghats and the dense forests of central India are some of the strongholds of this beautiful Earth-lion of India. And although I remain of strong opinion that it is not the only Chameleon of India, it will remain the King of all the ones we find in the future, if we ever do.

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The deciduous trees have already shed their leaves. The temperatures are cool for the moment. I will be continuing exploring the Sahyadris, but I will be on a sabbatical chasing some other priorities this year, and shall return by the end of December. See you all!