Hidden beneath the rubbish of a northern Malagasy forest lives a chameleon so light it could fall off its fingertips. Measuring just under 30 millimeters from the snout to the tail, the newly described species, Brookesia nana, may be the smallest reptile on Earth, according to researchers on Jan. 28 in Scientific Reports.
Only two adult specimens are known, one male and one female. The female measures 28.9 millimeters, considerably larger than the male 21.6 millimeters long. The size difference may have led the male genitals to be large enough [almost 20 percent of their body length] to fit their partner better, suggested herpetologist Frank Glaw of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich.
Nicknamed B. nana for its dwarf size, the species belongs to a genus of at least 13 other small chameleons scattered throughout the mountainous forests of northern Madagascar. Why B. nana and her cousins have dwindled to such tiny proportions remains a mystery, though smallness has its benefits: there is some evidence that little chameleons are especially good shots with the ballistic tongue.
In broad daylight, Brookesia chameleons roam the forest floor, snatching mites and other small invertebrates, Glaw's team suspects. At night, the lizards retreat upwards, grabbing the leaves of grass or other plants for safety.
Researchers say deforestation and habitat degradation threaten the future of B. nana, although the region where the compact chameleons were found was recently designated as a protected area by the Malagasy government. The species may soon be listed as endangered, the most serious classification made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.