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One of world's rarest chameleons, once feared extinct, found in African rainforest

A photo of a Chapman’s pygmy chameleon, one of the world’s rarest chameleons.
The Chapman’s pygmy chameleon is one of the world’s rarest chameleons. (Image credit: Krystal Tolley)

Scientists have found one of the world's rarest chameleons "clinging to survival" after fearing it had become extinct since its initial discovery in the 1990s because of massive deforestation, a new study finds. 

Researchers discovered a population of Chapman's pygmy chameleons (Rhampholeon chapmanorum) surviving in small patches of rainforest in southern Malawi in southeastern Africa. 

A research team from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Museums of Malawi made the discovery in 2016. They saw the first chameleon on the edge of a forest.

"When we found it we got goosebumps and just started jumping around," lead author Krystal Tolley, a herpetologist from SANBI and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said in a statement. "We didn’t know if we would get any more, but once we got into the forest there were plenty, although I don’t know how long that will last.”

Related: In photos: Clever chameleons stick out their tongues

Chapman's pygmy chameleons grow to just 2.2 inches (5.5 centimeters) long and walk on the forest floor. They disguise themselves by matching the pattern of dead leaves. They were first discovered in a dwindling rainforest in the Malawi Hills in 1992 and were later released into a separate forest 59 miles (95 kilometers) away near Mikundi, also in Malawi, to increase their chances of survival, according to the statement.   

The team compared modern satellite images of the Malawi Hills forest to those taken in the 1980s and estimated that the forest has declined by 80%. The researchers identified areas where the chameleons could still be living and surveyed them by walking along forest trails at night with torches when they are easier to spot.

They found 17 adult chameleons across two forest patches in the Malawi Hills, and 21 adult chameleons and 11 juveniles in one patch near Mikundi. More chameleons may well exist in other forest patches that the team was not able to survey, according to the study.

The researchers took tiny tissue samples from the tails of some of the adult chameleons, before placing the chameleons back where they found them, and analyzed their DNA. The genetic sequences of chameleons from the three forest patches differed greatly, which suggests the chameleons are becoming isolated in their forest patches and unable to travel between them to breed and share genes. 

“The forest loss requires immediate attention before this species reaches a point from which it cannot return," Tolley said. "Urgent conservation action is needed, including halting of forest destruction and recovery of habitat to promote connectivity.”

Much of the Malawi Hills forest has been cut down and converted to agriculture. The team is calling for a comprehensive action plan to preserve the critically endangered chameleons so they don't become extinct.

The team published its findings on Monday (Aug.2) in the journal Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation

Originally published on Live Science.

Patrick Pester

Patrick is a staff writer for Live Science. His background is in wildlife conservation and he has worked with endangered species around the world. Patrick holds a master's degree in international journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K. and is currently finishing a second master's degree in biodiversity, evolution and conservation in action at Middlesex University London.