Wildlife & Wild Places

Adorable Pygmy Chameleon Captured in Stunning Photos

As the sun went down over the southernmost extension of the Great African Rift Valley, Harvard University entomologist and renowned wildlife photographer Piotr Naskrecki began hiking up Mozambique’s Mount Gorongosa. Lured by the chorus of katydids, Naskrecki left the group of biologists he had traveled to Africa with behind and followed the sounds of the cryptic insects into the unknown alone. With his headlamp on and three days worth of supplies stuffed into his backpack, he began his search for the small insects in the forest ahead. But what he found was not what he set out to see…

At the edge of the rainforest near the top of the 6,112-foot mountain, Naskrecki spotted an animal whose shape seemed both unexpected and oddly familiar. Recalling the event Naskrecki said, “it took my brain a second to pull together disparate threads of superficial knowledge and then… Sweet Merciful Jeebus, this is the Gorongosa pygmy chameleon!”

Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon ©Piotr Naskrecki 2013

The Gorongosa pygmy chameleon (Rhampholeaon gorongosae) was first discovered in 1971. Since its discovery, it has only been spotted by a handful of people. Naskrecki explained that he had encountered pygmy chameleons before when he was spending time in Madagascar, but had only ever read about the nearly mythical Gorongosa pygmy chameleon.

Unlike their larger relatives (Chamaeleoninae), which have prehensile tails and live high on trees and bushes, Gorongosa pygmy chameleons lack a prehensile tail and spend most of their lives closer to the ground in the leaf litter. Naskrecki explained that it is only at night that these small lizards climb up branches, like the one he first saw, to avoid being eaten by shrews and other nocturnal predators found in the area.

“Since few night predators are equipped with good color vision, at night they [Gorongosa pygmy chameleons] shrink their color-producing chromatophores in their skin, and turn ghostly pale,” Naskrecki stated. “This of course makes them easy to spot by somebody carrying a powerful flashlight, and soon I started noticing dozens of them sleeping on trees and bushes all around me.”

Under the new moon, Naskrecki headed back to his tent after his rare sighting dreaming of the upcoming day, which he planned to spend photographing the tiny lizards. However, when Naskrecki woke with the sun the next morning, the pygmy chameleons were nowhere to be found.

Abandoning the katydids that he originally set out to find, Naskrecki spent the entire day searching for the lizards whose small size and ability to alter their body color and pattern to match the forest floor make them difficult, if not impossible, to find. But his search was in vain.

It wasn’t until the sun sank below the horizon that Naskrecki saw the tiny lizards again. With the darkness of night the pygmy chameleons turned ghostly white and appeared on the branches, making them easy to see as he scanned the forest vegetation with his headlamp; however, the lack of light prevented him from photographing the tiny creatures.

Determined to document a day in the life of the Gorongosa pygmy chameleon, Naskrecki woke up before the sun the following day, emerging from his tent just in time to spot one last chameleon slowly climbing down the branch it had been hugging the night before.

As the tiny lizard skillfully descended to the forest floor, Naskrecki noticed a newly hatched baby nearby. Focused on the larger female, he didn’t notice as the baby made its way over to the larger female and climbed on top of her to hitch a ride. Though, once it happened, he did capture the endearing and rare scene in incredible images.

Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon

As the day passed, Naskrecki followed the little lizards’ tiny steps, photographing them as they slowly climbed over dead leaves and skillfully caught grasshoppers, termites and other small insects with their incredibly long tongues.

Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon

“During the few nights that I spent on the mountain, in those moments when I wasn’t giggling with delight at the sight of the most adorable lizard on the planet, I found several katydid species new to science,” Naskrecki said after returning from his solo expedition into the largely unknown jungle atop Mount Gorongosa.

Talking to Naskrecki back at Harvard, it is obvious that while he traveled to Gorongosa National Park to help survey the biodiversity of the area, which is still largely unknown and just beginning to be studied, he left with much more than a list of animals he had seen and a handful of new species to describe. He got to witness the unique and mysterious creatures that call Gorongosa National Park home and through his photography and research he is dedicated to sharing these tiny wonders with the rest of the world.

Scroll through the gallery below to see photos taken by Naskrecki of the Mount Gorongosa pygmy chameleon. To find out more about Gorongosa National Park and the Gorongosa pygmy chameleon visit their website.

Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Piotr Naskrecki in Gorongosa National Park
Piotr Naskrecki in Gorongosa National Park
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
Gorongosa Pygmy Chameleon
©Piotr Naskrecki 2013
©Piotr Naskrecki 2013

 

Mera is the founder and CEO of Soapply. She has conducted research internationally, worked for the Smithsonian Institution, multiple academic institutions, and was the past managing editor of Mission Blue. She is dedicated to the communication and dissemination of scientific information and is passionate about elevating public awareness about the social and environmental issues.

  • STaiX

    How long is its tongue,cool,It’s really Rare,Thx a loT

  • STaiX

    How long is its tongue,cool,It’s really Rare,Thx a loT

  • Paul

    Sweet merciful Jeebus — that was a great article.

  • Paul

    Sweet merciful Jeebus — that was a great article.

  • Julia

    So cute!!!!!!! Great job!

  • Julia

    So cute!!!!!!! Great job!

  • Maureen Daly

    Really enjoyed reading the article. Learned a lot and the subject is fascinating.

  • Deb Thompson (@newjetsetters)

    Wow, what an amazing and interesting story on this tiny little guy! That’s what I love about this world – there is always something left to learn and appreciate, if only you open your mind to the universe. Thanks for bringing this to us!

  • Deb Thompson (@newjetsetters)

    Wow, what an amazing and interesting story on this tiny little guy! That’s what I love about this world – there is always something left to learn and appreciate, if only you open your mind to the universe. Thanks for bringing this to us!

  • Dominique

    i always watch natgeo

  • Dominique

    i always watch natgeo

  • Kathy

    Cool – yes. great article – yes. Cute – not so much.

  • Kathy

    Cool – yes. great article – yes. Cute – not so much.

  • SAVETHESEA

    awsome article! i always learn something new when i log on! 🙂

  • SAVETHESEA

    awsome article! i always learn something new when i log on! 🙂

  • Mark Peterson

    Great pics…what kind of camera and what kind of lens did you use?

  • Mark Peterson

    Great pics…what kind of camera and what kind of lens did you use?

  • Sali Moffat

    Amazing!!!!!!!
    well done and the photos absolutely beautiful and interesting
    thanks 🙂

  • Sali Moffat

    Amazing!!!!!!!
    well done and the photos absolutely beautiful and interesting
    thanks 🙂

  • Cindy Kirchner

    What a great find. Thanks for sharing this wonderful find

  • matheo

    i think this the best picture

  • matheo

    i think this the best picture

  • desi Traveler

    I must acknowledge and appreciate the dedication with which Piotr has photographed these little creatures. Each photo is beautiful and the pillion riding one is absolutely wonderful.

  • desi Traveler

    I must acknowledge and appreciate the dedication with which Piotr has photographed these little creatures. Each photo is beautiful and the pillion riding one is absolutely wonderful.

  • Anne Doubilet

    Engaging writing to follow with the wonderful photos!

  • Anne Doubilet

    Engaging writing to follow with the wonderful photos!

  • Louise Cardillo

    Amazng, great article. The dedication to discover new species and determine our best options to maintain Eco-systems is so important. Love National Geographic. Thanks for the Blog!

  • Louise Cardillo

    Amazng, great article. The dedication to discover new species and determine our best options to maintain Eco-systems is so important. Love National Geographic. Thanks for the Blog!

  • NAT. NERD

    Awesome article!! Love the picture with the finger. They are soo cute and tiny!

  • NAT. NERD

    Awesome article!! Love the picture with the finger. They are soo cute and tiny!

  • charles

    great lovely photoes .its nice to know what we still have around us even though rarely seen.keep us informed.thanks

  • charles

    great lovely photoes .its nice to know what we still have around us even though rarely seen.keep us informed.thanks

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media