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Pygmy Chameleon

Note: Species marked with (sa) are being proposed for listing due to similarity of appearance.


Additional Information :


Read the proposal for consideration of African Pygmy Chameleons at CoP17.

The Taxonomic Checklist for Chameleons is available in two volumes:

Volume 1

Volume 2

Pygmy Chameleons


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Scientific Name: Rieppeleon brevicaudatus

Common Names: Bearded Pygmy Chameleon



Scientific Name: Rhampholeon spectrum

Common Names: Spectral Pygmy Chameleon



Scientific Name: Rhampholeon temporalis

Common Names: Usambara Pitted Pygmy Chameleon


Difficulty: Intermediate - These species are for more experienced keepers. They have additional husbandry requirements that can be difficult for people unfamiliar with general chameleon care.


Brief Introduction:


Pygmy chameleons, also known as stump-tail chameleons, are a fascinating group of species due to their remarkably small size. In fact, some of the smallest vertebrates known to science are among this group. This caresheet focuses on the three most common pygmy chameleons in captivity today, the bearded, spectral and pitted pygmy chameleons. All three are native to montane forests and tend to occupy lower shrubs and areas where little light breaches the forest canopy. These little chameleons have evolved to resemble the dead leaves, twigs and mosses found in their natural habitats. As of this writing most pygmy chameleons available in the pet trade are wild caught animals, with very few known stable captive populations.




The three pygmy chameleons covered in this caresheet have an adult length of 3-3.5” (8-9cm), but other species can be as small as 1” (2.5cm). Pygmy chameleons generally display various shades and patterns of brown that often help to blend them into the surrounding leaf litter and forest floor.


R. brevicaudatus are generally light brown with a striped or splotched pattern resembling a wilted leaf. Shades of yellow, red and green can be seen during courtship and display. The bearded pygmy has a small "beard" of scales that protrude from the bottom of the chin in both sexes. They are found in the Eastern Usambara and Uluguru Mountains in Tanzania.


Rh. spectrum have a mottled pattern of browns, greys, and even some red tones. Diagonal stripes can be seen along their flanks. A small, soft nasal process is present resembling a small horn. Their tails are noticeably longer than that of brevicaudatus. The spectrum can be found in areas ranging from Cameroon to the Congo.


Rh. temporalis are light brown or grey in colour with small diagonal stripes on their sides. The lips are broad and flat and somewhat resemble the beak of a duck. Their tails are noticeably longer than that of brevicaudatus. The temporalis are found exclusively in the humid Eastern Usambara Mountains.


Pygmy chameleons are one of the few species that can be successfully housed in groups. They coexist peacefully as long as there is adequate space, vegetation and no more than one male per cage. Like other chameleons, and due to their very small size, they are a pet that is for observation and should not be handled unless necessary. Pygmy chameleons have the unusual ability to vibrate or buzz when frightened in an attempt to intimidate other chameleons, predators or even an insect bothering them. For what they lack in size they make up for in personality; they are calm and don't seem intimidated by their human keepers.


Pygmy chameleons have short lifespans of only 1-3 years.


Pygmy Chameleons - Identification


R. brevicaudatus can be sexed by their tail length and body shape. The male's tail is longer and slimmer, and their dorsal crest is more serrated. Females typically have a larger and more rounded body than males. Rh. spectrum and Rh. temporalis males have a prominent hemipenal bulge.







Rh. temporalis



Adult Male

Adult Female

Rh. spectrum


Video : 

The Mount Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon


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By AndrewPosted onMarch 15, 2016CategoriesScienceTagschameleon, ecology,endangered species,evolution, malawi, milange,mulanje, mulanje pygmy chameleon, zoology


Pygmy Leaf Chameleons

Rescuing the Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon from the path.
Christine Cambrook | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

By far the rarest animal that I have encountered during my time in Mozambique has been the Mount Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon, Rhampholeon platyceps. A stunning little creature, it is endemic to the Mulanje massif, only being found in the southern and eastern-facing mid and high altitude evergreen forest of the massif. This includes the Ruo Gorge, where we came across the little guy (or possibly girl) above. Unfortunately its forest habitat remains only in fragmented patches and, due to its restricted range and the high threat of deforestation, it is declared Endangered by the IUCN Red List. We were lucky that this individual was crossing the path in front of us.


The Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon was first described in 1892 in a paper by A. Günther to the Zoological Society of London. The paper is titled Report on a Collection of Reptiles and Batrachians transmitted by Mr. H. H. Johnston, C.B., from Nyassaland and is available for free here. Like many papers of the day, Dr Günther was communicating the findings of others and it opens with a description of the people involved in what today might be considered equivalent to an author list:


Acting under instructions from Mr. H.H. Johnston, C.B., F.Z.S., Mr. Sclater has sent to the British museum a series of specimens of Reptiles and Batrachians collected by Mr. Alexander Whyte, F.Z.S., the naturalist attached to Mr. Johnston’s staff, in the Shire Highlands of south of Lake Nyassa, principally upon Mount Zomba and Mount Milanji.


This scientific description in a zoological journal misses out the context of this discovery. In 1982 the British Central Africa Protectorate, what is now Malawi, was only a year old. Mr. Harry H. Johnston was sent to the region by the British just three years earlier, in order to negotiate with the Portuguese to protect British interests and prevent Portuguese occupation of the area. (Later, Sir) Harry Johnston was an explorer and a politician, a fixture in the seven major European powers’ Scramble for Africa, negotiating treaties with local chiefs to establish Malawi as British territory. He later became the British Central Africa Protectorate’s first Commissioner. However, Johnston was also a naturalist and this paper demonstrates some of the work that his team did to categorise the fauna of the area.


Unfortunately, Johnston’s labelling of the location of collected species was sometimes imprecise – the specimens described in this paper are labelled as being collected in the Shire Highlands, a 7,300 km2 plateau in southern Malawi which includes Mulanje, Blantyre, some 75 km to the west, and Zomba, some 50 km to the north. The confusion caused by this poor location label probably caused later biologists to describe a sub-species for the same animal. These biologists collected specimens from the Lichenya Plateau and Ruo Gorge and seemingly saw enough differences to define two sub-species, Rhampholeon platyceps platyceps and Rhampholeon platyceps carri. Later analysis resolved this separation.



The original paper is full of descriptions of animals “new to our knowledge of the Reptilian Fauna of the Nyassa district”. The beautifully detailed sketch on plate 34 of the pygmy chameleon (labelled #1. A different species, #2, is also sketched) demonstrates the chameleons in their assumed habitat. Notice the absence of the tail, honestly described in the text as being “lost by accident”.

Oops. The tail’s missing. 
Günther (1892)

“pairs of very small tubercles are placed at regular distances along the vertebral line”


The distinguishing tubercles are clear in the following photo, a thin line of green-grey along its back of its greyish brown body. Head-on you can see that Dr Günther’s simple sketch of the head was just right, with the characteristic triangle shape on the head clear in the photo. The bulging black eyes are reminiscent of the compound eyes of flies.



Getting a close up.
Andrew Beale | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Back on the forest floor you can appreciate the famous camouflage ability of chameleons. The Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon might not be as vibrant as some species (see the Panther Chameleon for an impressive display) but it certainly can blend in with its surroundings. Marching up the Big Ruo path on our way to Minunu Hut, I’m sure we would have never had seen it had it been in the leaf litter to the side.

Back down on the forest floor. 
Andrew Beale | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Since this animal was first described in the scientific literature, the world around them has changed, and not to their benefit. The population of Malawi has risen from approximately 700,000 to 16,500,000, and is projected to rise to 45,000,000 by 2050, putting huge pressure on the land and consequently on the chameleon’s habitat. World Bank data shows that between 1990 and 2010 the population increased by 50 % (9,408,998 to 14,769,824) and, in the same time, forested area decreased by 17 %. The Mulanje massif is experiencing the full extent of the deforestation and the Ruo Gorge, where we found this particular chameleon, is one of the few remaining patches of rainforest (which also makes it a beautifully cool route up to the plateau). Another species unique to Mulanje, the Mulanje cedar tree Widdringtonia whytei, is critically endangered – a toxic combination of demand for its timber and the poor growth of infant trees when surrounded by other plants. Both these species are losing the competition for space with the surrounding human population, an imbalance that groups such as the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust are working to address.


Recently, pygmy chameleons closely related to the Mulanje Pygmy have been described from Mozambican “sky islands” just over the border from Mulanje. These “sky islands” are, like Mulanje, isolated inselbergs of erosion-resistant rock and rise out from the planes beneath them like islands in the sky. Mt. Chiperone, Mt. Mabu, Mt. Namuli and Mt. Inago range from 50 to 200 km from Mt. Mulanje and harbour similar evergreen rainforest habitats as can be found on Mulanje. In 2014, Branch and colleagues described four newly discovered pygmy chameleon species, isolated from one another by their restriction to evergreen mountain rainforest. All within the same genus as the Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon, Rhampholeon maspictus (Mt. Mabu), Rh. nebulauctor (Mt. Chiperone), Rh. tilburyi (Mt. Namuli) and Rh. bruessoworum (Mt. Inago) are examples of allopatric speciation – speciation that occurs as populations become isolated from one another.


The speciation hypothesis could be this. These mountains were once connected as part of a large plane. They became mountain islands due to their geological composition, resisting the erosion of the surrounding planes. As the montane rainforest habitat became restricted to the remaining high lands, so too did the ancestral pygmy chameleon that once inhabited the whole area. Over time the multiple populations of this single species diverged, enough to become reproductively isolated from one another, becoming new and separate species. If this was the case, we might expect that the evolutionary relationships between chameleons inhabiting current day mountains to related to the geographical distance between them. This is indeed what was found by Branch and colleagues – chameleons on Mt. Inago appear to have diverged first (ca. 11-20 Mya), followed by those on Mt. Mulanje and Mt. Namuli (ca. 6-16 Mya), followed by chameleons from Mt. Mabu, Mt. Chiperone and Malawi Hills (Rh. chapmanorum) which appear to have diverged from each other more recently (4-9 Mya). This reflects the geographical distance between the mountains and the present of geographical boundaries (such as rivers).

The four surveyed mountains were chosen based on a Google Earth search of the area to find large (greater than 5000 ft or 1500 m) isolated mountains in Mozambique similar to Mulanje. Mount Tumbine, which rises above the town where I live, Milange, was not included. While not as big as Mts Namuli, Inago or Chiperone, it still rises over 1500 m and has patches of rainforest similar to those in the Ruo Gorge. Tumbine is close to Mulanje, just 3.5 km separates the 900 m+ parts of the mountain, but it is isolated from Mulanje by a river, the Malosa. Could Mt. Tumbine also have a resident population of pygmy chameleons and, if so, do they form a different species to the others? Only an expedition will tell…


Featured research:


- Günther, (1892), Report on a Collection of Reptiles and Batrachians transmitted by Mr. H. H. Johnston, C.B., from Nyassaland, Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London


- Branch et al., (2014), Pygmy chameleons of the Rhampholeon platyceps compex (Squamata: Chamaeleonidae): description of four new species from isolated ‘sky islands’ of northern Mozambique, Zootaxa

The mountains surveyed and Mt. Tumbine, another 1500m+ peak.

African Pygmy Chameleons

African pygmy chameleons had long been spared from large-scale exploitation for the international pet trade, possibly as a consequence of trade restrictions for other chameleon taxa. However, they are now commonly offered in the international pet trade, most notably in Europe and the United States. African pygmy chameleons also face threats from extensive and continual habitat alteration and destruction.


These chameleons occur only within continental African counties including Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Central African Republic, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.


CITES Proposal


There are 22 species of African pygmy chameleons, 21 of which are not yet included in the appendices of CITES. These are the only chameleon species not yet included in the CITES appendices; all other chameleons are in Appendix II (except Brookesia perarmata listed in Appendix I).


The United States along with the Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Kenya, and Nigeria, have submitted a proposal for consideration at CITES CoP17 that seeks to include these 21 species of African pygmy chameleons (of the genera Rhampholeon spp. and Rieppeleon spp.) in Appendix II.


In the proposal, seven species are proposed for inclusion in Appendix II because of international trade impacts, while 14 species are proposed for inclusion because of their similarity of appearance to the taxa threatened by trade. Identification of species can be confusing because of their similarity in appearance; however, CITES allows for listing “look-alike” taxa to provide better protection for species being impacted by trade.


Description :


African pygmy chameleons are small lizards, very similar in appearance to one another. The smallest species, Beraducci’s Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon beraducci), can reach a total length of 35-40 millimeters (1.4 to 1.6 inches), while the largest species, Marshall’s pygmy chameleon (Rhampholeon marshalli), can measure over 110 millimeters (4.3 inches).


Although the majority of the species have short, weak to non-prehensile tails, some species have relatively longer tails with significant prehensile function. Their low reproductive rate makes them vulnerable to overharvesting. Coloration consists mainly of shades of grey or brown, often resembling dead leaves; color pattern is not a consistent characteristic to distinguish the species.




Pygmy chameleons feed mainly on insects, including beetles, juvenile cockroaches, moths, caterpillars, grasshoppers, woodlice, spiders, termites and flies. Females have been found to exhibit a wider food niche than males.

Habitat :


In general, the majority of pygmy chameleons are restricted to wet, native forests in central and eastern Africa and equatorial forests of the Congo River basin and West Africa. At least seven species are restricted to isolated hills and mountain ranges.


Threats :


The principal threats for these species are: 


• Habitat loss/degradation; 
• Climate change (especially for species limited to isolated mountains and hills); and 
• Collection for the international pet trade. 



Because of their specialized habitat requirements, African pygmy chameleons are highly susceptible to human impacts resulting in the alteration, reduction and loss of overall habitat quality and area.




Class:     Reptilia
Order:    Squamata
Family:   Chamaeleonidae
Genus:   Rhampholeon (18 sps.)
Species:  acuminatus

                beraduccii (sa)

                boulengeri (sa)

                bruessoworum (sa)

                chapmanorum (sa)

                gorongosae (sa)

                hattinghi (sa)

                marshalli (sa)

                maspictus (sa)

                moyeri (sa)

                nchisiensis (sa)

                nebulauctor (sa)

                platyceps (sa)



                tilburyi (sa)




Genus:   Rieppeleon (3 sps.)

Species:  brachyurus (sa)





CHAMELEONS : Introduction   ..  Chameleons As a Pet  ..  




Carpet Chameleons : Part One  Part Two   Panter Chameleons :Part One  Part Two


Vield Chameleons Part One  Part Two  Fischer's Chameleons   


Jackson's  Chameleons Part One  Part Two  Part three 


Pygmy Chameleons Part One   Part Two    Part Three    Part Four   Part Five  Part Six   Part Seven 


Four-horned  Chameleons     Oustalet's  Chameleons     Other Chameleons  : 1- Brookesia   1  ,  2   ,  3




CHAMELEONS : Introduction   ..  Chameleons As a Pet  ..  




Carpet Chameleons : Part One  Part Two   Panter Chameleons :Part One  Part Two


Vield Chameleons Part One  Part Two  Fischer's Chameleons   


Jackson's  Chameleons Part One  Part Two  Part three 


Pygmy Chameleons Part One   Part Two    Part Three    Part Four   Part Five  Part Six   Part Seven 


Four-horned  Chameleons     Oustalet's  Chameleons     Other Chameleons  : 1- Brookesia   1  ,  2   ,  3




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