Scientists believe they may have discovered the smallest reptile on earth – a chameleon subspecies that is the size of a seed.
Two of the tiny lizards were discovered by German and Madagascan researchers in Madagascar. The male version of the Brookesia nana, or nano-chameleon, has a body of just 13.5mm and is about the size of a sunflower seed. This makes it the smallest of about 11,500 known species of reptiles, according to the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich. Its length from top to tail is 22mm (0.86in) and is small enough to fit comfortably on a human fingertip.
“At the first glance, we realized that it was an important discovery”
The female in the species is bigger at around 29mm, the institute said, adding that other specimens were yet to be located. “The new chameleon is only known from a degraded montane rainforest in northern Madagascar and might be threatened by extinction,” said the Scientific Reports journal. “You have to really get down on your knees to find them,” Glaw told AP on Friday. “They are obviously camouflaged and move very slowly.”
Finding such a small reptile raises interesting questions about the lower limits of body size in vertebrates.
It also highlights the astonishing—and highly threatened—biodiversity of Madagascar. Scientists suspect the chameleon will soon be listed as critically endangered.
“A spectacular case of extreme miniaturisation”
Oliver Hawlitschek, a scientist at the Center of Natural History in Hamburg, said: “The nano-chameleon’s habitat has unfortunately been subject to deforestation, but the area was placed under protection recently, so the species will survive.” Researchers found that it hunts for mites on the rainforest floor and hides from predators at night in blades of grass. “So this tiny new chameleon violates the pattern of the smallest species being found on small islands. That suggests that something else is allowing/causing these chameleons to miniaturise,” Said Dr Mark Scherz.
Its nearest competitor for the smallest reptile on earth trophy is a creature called Brookesia micra, another tiny chameleon species that made its debut in 2012, photographed atop the head of a match. “It feels a little silly to be like, ‘Oh, it’s a few millimeters smaller than this other thing,’” Scherz says. “But when millimeters are two or three percent of your body size, then that’s a lot of change.” “Most of science happens in these small, incremental steps,” Scherz adds.
The fact that only two individuals have been found of this species makes it difficult to generalize the findings. It’s possible that other chameleons in this species would be larger, or smaller, just like humans can be different heights.