A chameleon sighting is a rare privilege while out on a game drive, particularly in the evenings, and is seen as a test of skill amongst some game rangers.
These ungainly reptiles are masters of disguise, seamlessly blending in with their environment. Not only does the colour of the chameleon vary in accordance with its surroundings, but its jerky movements are designed to blend in with the movement of leaves in the trees they inhabit.
The flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepsis) is one of the most plentiful species of chameleon, and quite common throughout Kwa-Zulu Natal, Mpumalanga, and the northern provinces of South Africa. Their preferred habitat includes coastal thickets, woodland and savannah.
This chameleon is characterised by two large movable flaps protruding from either side of the upper side of its neck, hence the name. It is a large specimen with a length of about 35 cm, featuring an unbroken line of triangular white tubercles on the throat and belly. Naturally, being a chameleon, its colouration varies between shades of pale yellow, green and brown with a lighter bar on the sides.
Despite the similarity in their size, it is quite easy to distinguish the males from the females by the broadness of the male's tail at the base and the spur on each of its feet. The breeding season is directly after the rains and the eggs take between three and four months to develop. After this, the female descends from her home among the leaves and lays between twenty and forty white eggs in the soil. These can take up to 300 days to hatch and the young reach maturity after nine to twelve months.
This is one of the only times when the flap necked chameleon descends from its lofty perch, apart from when it is searching for a mate or a new hunting ground.
Like all chameleons, this species is supremely adapted for catching its insect-prey, usually grasshoppers and beetles. Its conical eyes can swivel in every direction, and no prey within range can escape its sticky extensile tongue and excellent aim.
In return, the chameleon is preyed upon by snakes such as the boomslang and twig snakes, along with monkeys and crowned hornbills. The only other threats to this chameleon are the encroachment of civilisation and the exotic pet trade. Chameleons are popular pets in the USA and can be sold for up to $60 in pet shops across the country.