The Long-Tongued Aliens of the Tree Tops—Invasive Chameleons
Chameleons are one of the world’s most notable reptiles, and they've become synonymous with that biological disappearing act―camouflage. But unwanted invasive species? That’s not a good color on them.
The veiled and Jackson Chameleons now reside in the upper-canopies of the island state’s otherwise endemic plant fauna; the chromatic consequence of our complacency. The exotic pet trade is a booming, multi-billion dollar global industry that, for better or worse, has made the idea of owning something outside the canine world a tangible possibility. But dogs can be trained to “comeback” on verbal command—chameleons can’t. And there entails the means of introduction for many established invasives—they began as lost pets that found other misplaced kin and began copulating.
Under the Veil
Attaining lengths of eighteen-inches and living upwards of eight-years, veiled chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) are large, primarily arboreal lizards found throughout the Arabian Peninsula. And in that life span, females can produce as many as two clutches per-year at the dizzying figure of eighty eggs per-clutch; rabbits couldn’t hold a candle to their reproductive habits. Garnered with green-laden chromoatophores—heavily pigmented epidermal cells that expand and contract to interpreted neurological queues, allowing chameleons the ability to change color—veiled chameleons use their always contrasting and adaptive canvas to communicate emotional messages. Strictly vibrant yellows invoke sexual inclinations, while strong reds can indicate that they’re disturbed by an intruder or would-be threat. Chameleons are naturally colored to mesh seamlessly in with their floral habitats, stalking soon-to-be consumed insects and the occasional small mammal; they also have a tendency to consume roughage from time-to-time.
The Tricertops of the Tree Tops
Jackson’s chameleons (Chamaeleo jacksonii) aren't as prevalent on the Hawaiian archipelago as there much larger, camouflaging counterparts; Jackson’s only attain lengths of no more than thirteen inches. Native to Kenya and Tanzania, Jackson’s chameleons are famously associated with their three-horned anatomical trifecta—one rostral horn (near the nose), and two preocular horns (each located on the superior orbital ridge). And like their more populated kin, these lizards are both primarily insectivorous and mirror that same, color-changing mantra.
A Silent, Less Colorful Rainforest
And now it’s time to shy away from the quirks of these animals, shinning a spotlight onto their impact on Hawaii’s ecosystems. Because of their umami-savvy habits for exoskeltal life, both veiled and Jackson’s chameleons place a heavy-threat on endangered—or near-so, for that matter—insect life, i.e. Hawaii’s declining land snail population counts. Couple this food-chain factoid with the likelihood that they may inadvertently consume one of Hawaii’s endemic plants—of which, eighty-nine percent of those plants, like the Moloka’I white hibiscus, are experiencing declines—and an environmental crisis seems to be looming in the deforested future.
Yes, veiled and Jackson’s chameleons are intriguing reptiles—whether kept in captivity or encountered in their invasive or natural environments. But out of respect for our shared biosphere, we must uphold our role as a cohabitant. We can’t carelessly toss aside pets we’ve now become bored with, an electronic impulse buy we no longer want to charge. And releasing that creature into an alien terra firma isn’t the answer—establish empathy for that animal, look into rehoming avenues. “Wait, it’s not a bird at all—it’s a chameleon! And isn't it beautiful in that well-maintained enclosure?”