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- inTamil: Pachonthi

 

The chameleon, though not a fool,
Is subject to great ridicule.
He changes hue with ease, at will;
His tongue it makes me rather ill.
He curls it to a prehensile tool
As he eyes the smallest molecule.
Ah! Nature's ways are often cruel,
So says the passing vermicule...
If only he would use his skill
And think pure thoughts while sitting still.

Navoditte (AV)

Highly unusual

Someone could be excused for thinking that when God designed Chameleons he was in a very creative and imaginative mood, or that he assembled them from spare parts that didn't fit easily into the rest of his creation. Certainly, as lizards go, they are highly unusual creatures, both in appearance and behaviour. Their presence in Auroville, although not often noticed, is widely appreciated and admired. Whenever one is seen, crossing a road or climbing a tree in its t'ai chi sing-song sort of way, people and children stop and notice, for a few moments breathing in the ways of this ancient creature.

Moody colours

It is a popular misconception that Chameleons simply change colour to suit their background. There is evidence they can do so in a limited way, but most colour changes are triggered by stimuli such as light, temperature and emotion. Their normal colour is grey?green, but in total darkness this fades to a creamy colour with irregular yellow spots. In hot direct sunlight some darken to a dark grey/dull black, but our local species tend to lighten in colour. Excitement and fright produce pale shades with brown patches and yellow spots. Anger commonly causes darkening, as one might expect, since it's associated with 'getting heated'! The change in colour can be achieved very rapidly, even within seconds, at most within a few minutes.

Habitat

Chameleons are most commonly found in Africa and Madagascar, though species are also found in Asia, Arabia and Southern Europe. In India we have just one species, though people might be excused for thinking otherwise because of its varying colouration. In fact, it is this characteristic which has led to another variety of lizards in America being incorrectly labeled Chameleons, because they change their colour.

Features

Chameleons are a variety of slow moving, highly specialised tree dwelling lizards, varying in size according to species from a few centimetres to 60 cms in overall length. Our local Indian species, which is found in most parts of India south and west of the Ganges, but not in heavy rainfall areas, measures up to 37 cms including its tail. Their bodies, which are generally compressed in a vertical plane, are covered in granular scales.
What is particularly remarkable is their tongue, which can easily be projected up to 50% of their body length, and in some species may even be as long as their body. The long shaft of the tongue is banded with sheaths of muscles, which when suddenly contracted combine to instantly shoot out the tongue. The tip, which is relatively large and club shaped, is covered in a sticky secretion which instantly binds to the flies and other insects they mostly feed on. Thanks to a highly elastic fibrous base to the tongue it can be withdrawn equally fast. The whole action is over in a fraction of a second, faster than the eye can see. And it can be repeated immediately if desired. In fact one captive specimen was seen to catch 8 dragonflies within 62 seconds; and another was seen similarly taking several small frogs in rapid succession.

Eyeing the prey..

Prey is generally stalked with slow deliberate movements until in range, or else snatched out of mid air. Occasionally they will increase their striking range a bit further when stalking by supporting themselves on their hind legs and tail, to reach out with the full upper body. Spotting of prey is facilitated by independently swiveling eyes, the eyelids of which are fused into a single turret?like circular fold leaving only the pupil visible in the centre. Each eye moves separately in its own socket, giving simultaneous near-300o vision. Once prey is sighted, however; they are both focused together for precise location and range finding, the latter being accompanied by a sideways rocking of the body.

Interesting feet and tail

At all times the Chameleon maintains a superb grip on its perch, using its highly adapted feet and a prehensile tail (like certain monkeys) which can be twisted round twigs for extra security. (They are the only lizards which have such a tail). The feet are specially interesting, being divided into two fused groups of opposing digits which open sideways from the body line (not back?front) and consist of 2 outer and 3 inner digits on the forelegs and vice versa on the hind legs.

Babes..

Most species of Chameleon lay eggs, though some bring forth fully formed young. Mating, in India, probably occurs around October, involving no noticeable courtship. A few weeks later, in the case of egg?laying species, the female descends to the ground and begins to dig a hole with her forefeet. As the final hole may be 30 cms deep this takes some time, perhaps a day or more. A clutch of 10?30 eggs is then laid. After laying, the mother fills in the hole again with her forefeet, and rams it down with her hind feet. The eggs, which are small, oval and white, about 15x5mm in size, with a tough parchment?like shell, are then left by the mother to be incubated by the heat of. the sun. They usually hatch after 120 days, releasing 3-cms size young.

Can be pretty fearsome..

A large size mature Chameleon can put on quite a fearsome act when frightened. Just the way it glares at you with its swivelling eyes can be daunting, but more formidable is the sudden "Haaaa"?like hissing noise it makes when you get too close. One invariably hesitates, as one would with a hissing snake, but in fact there's little to fear. It can inflict a quite painful bite, as it has small teeth, but the bite is non?toxic and harmless.

Hissing and 'haaing'

On the ground, Chameleons walk in a slow, stilted fashion, each leg being waved in a curious vacillatory, hesitant manner before being set on the ground. The whole effort is not unlike the laboured, unsteady walk of a person after a prolonged lay-up in a sick-bed. It is of course on the ground that they are most commonly seen by us here in Auroville. It's also their place of greatest vulnerability so If ever you see one trapped or waylaid on Auroville's roads, please help it on its way to the nearest high branch. It may hiss and "haaaa" at you like mad, but I'm sure it will be quietly grateful to you after the event!

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