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A New Species of Chameleon on Mt. Namuli

Being so totally disconnected from a regular nine-to-five, Monday–Friday schedule, time loses meaning out in Africa’s “sky-island” rain forests. Though we had at first been greeted with the devastation of slash-and-burn farms on Mt. Namuli, we found a portion of remaining forest to begin our search for new species. One day, although I knew it was...

The granite dome of Namuli rises out of the Muretha plateau. (Photo by Michele Menegon)

Being so totally disconnected from a regular nine-to-five, Monday–Friday schedule, time loses meaning out in Africa’s “sky-island” rain forests. Though we had at first been greeted with the devastation of slash-and-burn farms on Mt. Namuli, we found a portion of remaining forest to begin our search for new species. One day, although I knew it was my turn to head downstream, I had no idea what the date was, and only a vague idea of what day of the week it was. Only my small notebook where I forced myself to scratch down tidbits allowed me to keep any sense on the passage of time. It was Thursday. I would spend one night at the satellite camp, and it was my only chance to find what I was so hoping to find on this mountain.

I suspected there could be an unknown species of chameleon in the genus Nadzikambia on Namuli. At least one chameleon species (Rhampholeon tilburyi) is already known to exist there. This is a small leaf chameleon that was formally described in 2014, although we had known of its existence for many years, having been noted by numerous people exploring Namuli. But the Nadzikambia was different. There are only two species known from this genus, one from Mount Mabu and the other from Mount Mulanje (in Malawi).

Because Namuli is close to both of those mountains and because its forest should be large enough to support this fully arboreal species, I expected that it might be there. It is strange, however, that no one had ever seen it—given that the mountain is populated and that it had been explored in earlier times before the civil war broke out in Mozambique in the 1970s. Could that mean no such Nadzikambia existed? Or was it simply that nobody had actually tried to find it?

My one night at the satellite camp would have to suffice. Mike and I headed down the stream with our guide, Elias, to meet the team already there. For more than an hour, we boulder-hopped over mossy surfaces, with the stream boiling around us. Occasionally, we had to cut into the steep forest edges where the going got too tough in the stream bed. I had trouble keeping up with Elias. He looked like he was taking a Sunday stroll over the boulders, and he had to keep waiting for me to catch up. Finally, huffing and puffing with wobbly legs, I heard shouts from the banks… it was a cheery looking Simon, Bibi and Michele. They tucked into the lunch we brought for them while explaining that the night had not been great. They had found some typical frogs (Arthroleptis and a stunning Leptopelis), but they had not seen Nadzikambia.

I swapped places with Bibi and she headed back upstream with Mike and Elias. Simon, Michele and I waited for dark. Finally, anticipation building, we got out our spotlights and headed downstream. We kept to the boulder-hopping so that we could get a good view of the canopy. I expected these chameleons to be high in the trees and that we’d never see them if we went into the forest. So we scanned the edges of the forest, from the middle of the stream. Moving slowly from boulder to boulder, we cast our lights around… and after a mere 10 minutes I spotted a lime-green form about five meters off of the ground. I shouted out an “Aah!” followed by “That’s it… it’s there… in the tree! It’s a Nadzikambia!

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An angry female Nadzikambia, one of the new species found on Namuli. It has a distinctive orange cap on its head, and is lime-green in color with bright white patches on its sides. (Photo by Michele Menegon)

Simon and Michele came hopping over at top-speed. “Where… where is it? Yes, we see it!” We were totally overjoyed; all the earlier feelings of desperation had evaporated. We had just found a totally new species of chameleon; one that no other human had yet formally classified. It is a privilege that I will always value, and never forget. We used my special “chameleon pole” to get it down. It’s a collapsible fishing rod that extends to 21 feet. Simply poke the chameleon a bit with the tip, and eventually it will climb on. That night we found in total six of these stunning creatures. The females have a bright orange patch on the tops of their heads, while the males are more multi-coloured. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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A female of the new species of chameleon in the genus Nadzikambia. One of the most exciting new finds on Mount Namuli, it is arboreal and can only be found in the forest habitat. (Photo by Michele Menegon)

We left the satellite camp the next day for the main camp to rendezvous with the rest of the team. They had spent some time searching for a small frog, Notophryne, which lives on the wet rock face of the granite. It is basically rock-colored and it hunkers down onto the rock surface in order to resemble the surrounding minerals. It’s hard to spot, but Bibi and Hanlie made a good job of it and found several. This species may also be new to science, but our future DNA analysis will provide that answer. In the meantime, Werner had headed out to another forest patch for the night, in the Ukalini forest, to try and find chameleons there. He returned successful, with several Rhampholeon which do not look like the species already known from Namuli. Again, DNA analysis will give us some clues as to whether the Ukalini Rhampholeon are a new species.

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The male of the new species of chameleon (Nadzikambia), it is clearly different in coloration from the female. It lacks the bright orange patch on the head, and instead has a patchwork of colors both on the head and the body. (Photo by Michele Menegon)

It was soon time to leave Namuli behind. We rendezvoused with the motorbikes and repeated the trip down the track in reverse, each of us careening down the mountain with our driver, through villages filled with the shouts of children as we passed. We had finished Namuli, feeling excited about the new chameleon species and the potential for new frog species, but at the same time we left there feeling a keen sense of sorrow for the plight of the forest on this mountain, and the creatures it contains.


Read More by Krystal Tolley

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Meet the Author

Krystal Tolley
Krystal Tolley is a National Geographic grantee discovering the diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the montane forests of Mozambique. Krystal and her colleagues are carrying out field surveys of poorly known forests, and following up with DNA barcoding to understand species diversity. This information will feed into conservation assessments to determine if these montane forests are biological hotspots.