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Panther Chameleon: Madagascar Marvel is 11 Species in One

May 26, 2015 10:17 AM EDT

Madagascar is known for its incredible biodiversity, but even so scientists were surprised to find that one species in particular that's unique to the region, called the panther chameleon, is actually 11 different species in one.

Described in the journal Molecular Ecology, a team of researchers led by the University of Geneva took two expeditions from East to West to collect drops of blood from 324 individuals, which were then documented via color photographs. The researchers wanted to find the genetic keys behind the panther chameleon's incredible color palette.

That's because, despite the fact that Madagascar is one of the most diverse places on Earth, in the last few decades the island's forests have been suffering. Rapid deforestation is affecting the biotopes of hundreds of species, including the panther chameleon, which is hailed for its spectacular intra-specific color variation.

With the color photographs, the researchers found that the subtle color patterns that they saw could effectively predict assignment of chameleon individuals to their corresponding genetic lineage, confirming that many of the geographical populations might need to be considered separated species. And in the case of the panther chameleon, their analyses showed that they weren't just looking at one species - they were looking at 11.

Next, the researchers simplified their analyses of the color diversity into a classification key, which allowed them to link most chameleons to their corresponding species using only the naked eye. This only confirms what scientists have long known - that Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot.

In addition, this new study shows that in order to protect the new chameleon species, they need individual conservation management, given that they each constitute a different part of the biodiversity as a whole. The visual classification key created by the researchers could even assist local biologists and trade managers to avoid local population over-harvesting.

Madagascar's biodiversity is fragile, now with human activities threatening the survival of 400 species of reptile, 300 species of amphibians, 300 species of birds, 15,000 species of plants and countless species of invertebrates. And with about 80-90 percent of all its species living nowhere else on Earth, the need to better understand these species is critical to boost conservation efforts.

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