The third of the chameleon species at Bristol is not often seen in zoos. The Common Chameleon Chamaeleo chamaeleon is the “original” chameleon. It has a range that at least formerly included several of the Greek islands, although now it is only found on Samos, and extends all around the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, extending as far east as Iran. It is also found in southern Spain, Malta and Crete. Other species of Chamaeleo are found in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian peninsula and in India as far south as Sri Lanka. One of the largest is also the species hobbyists are most familiar with, the Veiled Chameleon C.calyptratus.
Common chameleons are usually found in bushes within a few metres of ground level, and can often be found in reasonable densities of up to 50 individuals per hectare in Spain. They are of course insectivorous, feeding heavily on various insects, especially wasps and mantids. As with most chameleons they are solitary, especially males, although females will tolerate each other more.
They generally produce one clutch a year. Depending on the size and age of the female the clutch size varies from 8 to over 40, and are buried in sandy or soil. Females can travel considerable distances to find traditional nest sites, and are vulnerable to traffic if they have to cross roads to do this. Newly hatched young avoid adults as they may be victims of cannibalism. In one study in Israel, young were found in grasses whereas adults were found in trees and bushes.
The distinctive appearance and insect eating habits of chameleons have made them among the more familiar lizards from earliest times, and the Romans and possibly earlier cultures kept them as pets. As a result, they have been moved around the Mediterranean for thousands of years, and the Spanish population at least may well be a result of Roman or earlier introduction. Other species have also been introduced, and both Florida and Hawai’I have introduced chameleons of various species. One ancient chameleon introduction was discovered some years ago on the mainland of Greece. These are a population of African Chameleons, C.africanus, the source population of which may be from near Alexandria in Egypt. When these were brought to Greece is unclear, but Greeks were trading with Egypt as early as the Bronze Age.
Although they are protected over most of their range, Common Chameleons are still caught for the pet trade. This is indirectly how Bristol came to hold the species. A ship called in at the docks which had called in along the African coast, and some of the sailors had bought a souvenir pet chameleon in a market. As they were protected, they were confiscated and given to the zoo. One proved to be a gravid female which laid eggs, and after a 10 month incubation they hatched and the zoo succeeded in rearing 11 juveniles, which are themselves just old enough to breed, so with any luck a new generation will raised this year.
(images are mine)