In the tropical jungles of Madagascar there are thousands of different species of birds, monkeys, reptiles and insects. The ecosystem there is teeming with every color of the rainbow, especially if you add in the plants and flowers. One creature in particular though, has managed to catch the attention of scientists and their recent findings bring some insight to the vibrant colors of one jungle resident in particular.
The panther chameleon is a stand out, even among the rainforests and lush tropical landscape of Madagascar. A team from the University of Geneva Department of Genetics and Evolution partnered with colleagues in Madagascar's University of Antananarivo to investigate exactly how this chameleon got its unique patterns of color. The species is only found in Madagascar and scientists to wonder how the creature could have developed such intricate designs.
While the chameleons have extremely varied patterns, the researchers thought that the dominant colors on the reptiles could be related to the geographic region in which they were found. In two separate treks through the panther chameleon's habitat they were able to collect blood samples from 324 lizards and photograph each one as well.
The blood samples were then analyzed and sorted by geographic area and the DNA of each was sequenced. One of the first things they learned from this analysis is that there is very little interbreeding among the lizards across geographical lines. Much like the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story, it seems these lizards stick to their own kind.
Further study of the photographs revealed that the patterns in the photos, while subtle, did correspond with the different genetic codes found in the DNA and these similar groups of DNA and color patterns were indeed sorted by geographical location. The team concluded that based on their findings, there isn't just one species of panther chameleon, but rather eleven different species, each one unique in its color pattern and DNA make up.
What does this mean for Madagascar? Study leader Michel Milinkovitch, a professor of genetics, evolution, and biophysics at the University of Geneva said in a press release that the findings underscore the immense biodiversity of Madagascar and highlight the need to protect these individual species from extinction.
Milinkovitch worked closely with Malagasy scientist and professor Achille Raselimanana to turn their photographs into a classification key that can be used to identify individual species just by comparing a lizard's color pattern to the photographs. The team hopes that bringing awareness to the diversity of these and other species in Madagascar will result in protection or at least a slow down of the destruction the region faces from human activity.
It is estimated that between 300 and 400 species of birds, reptiles and amphibians as well as more than 15,000 species of plants are threatened by deforestation, agriculture and the local population's harvesting trees for charcoal production and other industrial uses. Experts believe that approximately 85-90% of the plant and animal species found in Madagascar exist only in that very small area, and nowhere else on the planet.
Managing and protecting this vast resource of biodiversity will prove to be an enormous challenge going forward, but the authors of this recent study believe their findings should serve as a call to others to look closer at the populations in biodiverse areas before they are lost forever.
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