Voeltzkow's Chameleon: Spotted in Madagascar After a Century Without Sightings

Voeltzkowi's chameleons measure between 13 and 26 centimetres in length, although females are usually smaller than males. Would you like to know why this species disappeared from the human radar?
Voeltzkow's Chameleon: Spotted in Madagascar After a Century Without Sightings

Last update: 11 December, 2021

Declaring a species extinct isn’t a simple process, as several studies are required to support this claim. As a result, there are many “missing” animals that experts aren’t clear whether they’ve completely disappeared or not. An example of this is the Voeltzkow’s chameleon, a beautiful reptile that has been missing for more than a century…until now.

The scientific name of this species is Furcifer voeltzkowi and it belongs to the family Chamaeleonidae. This reptile is endemic to Madagascar and was first described in 1893. However, it was last seen in 1905 and then disappeared for more than a century. Read on and learn about the history of Voeltzkow’s chameleon.

A little known species

In 1893, the German zoologist Oskar Boettger described several reptiles from the collection of the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History. Among them was a beautiful green chameleon with a horn similar to that of the Madagascar chameleon (Furcifer labordi). This new species was named Voeltzkow’s chameleon after its collector, Alfred Voeltzkow.

At this point, all that was known about this new creature was its appearance and that it was endemic to western Madagascar. However, between 1903 and 1905 the same naturalist Alfred Voeltzkow undertook an expedition to East Africa and encountered the chameleon again, which gave him the opportunity to describe it better.

Nevertheless, this would be the last time the world would know about this reptile for several decades.

In search of lost species

Just over a century later, the non-profit organization Global Wildlife Conservation compiled a list of the 25 most wanted missing species of 2017. This was intended to mobilize experts to find the species or confirm their extinction. Specimens such as Jackson’s salamander, the Vietnam mouse deer, and Wallace’s giant bee were the first to be rediscovered.

Voeltzkow’s chameleon ranked sixth on the list, so new expeditions were prepared to go out in search of this, and other, reptile species. With this, the experts hoped to be able to unravel all the unknowns that still remained to be discovered about these animals.

The expedition to northwestern Madagascar

Fortunately, all the preparations for the foray were finalized in March 2018, which started the two-week trip that led to the rediscovery of this species. This expedition was led by Frank Glaw, head of the vertebrate department at the Munich State Zoological Collection.

Despite the fact that the group was made up of experts in the field, the first few days of the foray were unsuccessful. However, near the end of their journey, the adventurers once again encountered the beautiful Voeltzkowi’s chameleon. This wouldn’t only mark the return of a species that was thought to be extinct, but would also allow them to learn more about the animal’s biological makeup.

In April 2018, this incredible chameleon was rediscovered after 113 years without a sighting. In addition, females of this species were observed for the first time, which exhibit beautiful characteristics that were previously unknown due to a lack of data.

Never-before-seen females

Voeltzkow’s chameleon was first described by observing male specimens. For this reason, females weren’t thought to exhibit any significant differences from males. However, when it was rediscovered, researchers realized they were wrong.

The female of this species is capable of displaying a combination of bright colors with shades of purple, orange, red, green, white, and black. These patterns change according to her mood, but, when stressed, she’s able to alter her coloration drastically.

These bright shades are only seen in females that have already mated and have eggs inside them. For this reason, the mechanism seems to serve as a visual indicator for males to identify females that haven’t yet mated.

Why hasn’t it been seen again?

This “lost” species is related to the Madagascar chameleon. The latter is very famous for having the shortest life expectancy among chameleons (4 to 5 months), which implies that there’s a high probability that this specimen and Voeltzkow’s chameleon share the same life cycle.

In other words, Voeltzkow’s chameleon will most likely live only a few months before disappearing from its habitat. Therefore, it’s nearly impossible to find this animal at certain times of the year. However, thanks to the expedition we’ve mentioned, it was identified that the best months to locate the reptile are March and April.

The story of this chameleon is a good sign for conservationists, because it helps them to better understand these animals better. However, other species in the same situation aren’t so lucky. Despite a lot of bad news regarding endangered animals, and thanks to the work of various organizations, these “lost” animals still have a chance to save themselves from extinction.

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  • Voeltzkow, Alfred (1913). Reise in Ostafrika in den Jahren 1903-1905. Bild 3 Heft 4-5. Stuttgart. p. 306.
  • Boettger, O. 1913. Reptilien und Amphibien von Madagascar, den Inseln und dem Festland Ostafrikas. Pp. 269-375. In: Voeltzkow, A. Reise in Ostafrika in den Jahren 1903-1905. Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse. Vol. 3. Systematische Arbeiten. Schweizerbart’ sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Nägele und Sproesser, Stuttgart.
  • Glaw, F., Prötzel, D., Eckhardt, F., Raharinoro, N. A., Ravelojaona, R. N., Glaw, T., Glaw, K., Forster, J. & Vences, M. (2020). Rediscovery, conservation status and genetic relationships of the Malagasy chameleon Furcifer voeltzkowi. SALAMANDRA, 56(4), 342-354.
  • Sentis, M., Chang, Y., Scherz, M. D., PrÖtzel, D., & Glaw, F. (2018). Rising from the ashes: resurrection of the Malagasy chameleons Furcifer monoceras and F. voeltzkowi (Squamata: Chamaeleonidae), based on micro-CT scans and external morphology. Zootaxa, 4483(3), 549-566.
  • Eckhardt, F. (2020). A Short Story: Senescence in an Annual Reptile, Labord’s Chameleon (Furcifer Labordi) (Doctoral dissertation, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen).