A Chance Encounter
I’d been told that the elevation where I live in Holualoa on the Big Island is prime habitat for the Jackson’s Chameleon. Truth is I had never seen one around the property, that is until one day in May as I was enjoying a cup of coffee outdoors in the morning sun, I spotted this fellow on the lanai.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists all chameleons as threatened. The reason for their decline is habitat destruction (no surprise) and the commercial trade in exotic pets. There are people that don’t enjoy watching animals in their natural environment but rather like to observe them from home and own them and show them as part of their collection of purchased objects. The demand for exotic animals, reptiles, birds, aquarium fish and chameleons encourages pet suppliers to take them from the wild and ship them great distances; those that survive often arrive malnourished and stressed.
Chameleons are arboreal, living in trees, bushes and wooded areas. Most are approximately 12 inches (30 cm) in length including the prehensile tail. They normally display varying shades of green but like all chameleons, they change color quickly and can turn as dark as black when in great distress. Reminiscent of a prehistoric dinosaur there are saw-tooth spines along the dorsal ridge and the back of the head displays a small crest. Males of the species have three long, pointed horns protruding from the head.
Here is a new word for you: zygodactylous. Like other chameleons, Jackson’s chameleon has zygodactylous feet (divided so that two toes point inward and three point outward) which are specialized for tree life.
The most recognizable feature of all chameleons are their eyes. Each eye rotates a full 180 degrees and is independent of the other; that is, one eye may point forward and the other be rotated in an opposite direction. The eyeball is covered with a layer of roughly textured skin and the pupil is the only part visible. Using their eyes independently, they will sit completely still and watch for an item of prey to cross their path. When one is spotted, both eyes will converge and it will sway a bit to better its vision and to confirm the distance to the meal. Prey is captured by projecting the tongue, which has a fleshy tip covered with sticky saliva. This chameleon’s diet consists of various climbing and flying invertebrates, including snails, crickets, cockroaches, flies, moths and spiders.
The tongue, one and a half times the lizard’s length, can reach full length in a sixteenth of a second. I wish I could have seen that happen.
Jackson’s chameleons are native to East Africa in the regions of Kenya and Tanzania. The subspecies T. j. xantholophus was purposely introduced to Hawai’i in the early 1970s. The reason was to develop a commercial source for the exotic pet trade.
Throughout the Hawaiian Islands there are a number of unique ecosystems with many plants and animals that are found no where else in the world. The effects of non-native species that have been released into the environment are much better understood than they were 40 years ago. The Hawai’i Department of Agriculture and the Department of Land and Natural Resources are actively engaged in the eradication and removal of invasive species that threaten the unique environment of Hawai’i. To protect and preserve this environment strict guidelines and laws have been established for the import, export and transportation of plants and animals to other countries, the mainland and between islands.
Although the Jackson’s Chameleon are not indigenous to Hawai’i they do not appear to be doing any irreparable harm. However, the exportation of these animals from Hawaii for the pet trade has been made illegal. The exotic pet trade is an odd bit of business but it is not supported here.
As for me it was quite entertaining watching this miniature dinosaur with his independently rotating eyeballs and zygodactylous feet make his way across the lanai and back to his natural habitat. By the way, I don’t have many bugs and spiders around the house.