Posted by: Loren Coleman on July 4th, 2008
OSU Press Release by John David Sutter
An Oklahoma State University researcher gained national attention this week for figuring out that a bizarre chameleon species on the island of Madagascar is born and dies within a year.
For more than 100 years, people had known about the tiny chameleon species Furcifer labordi, but no one noticed that it was living a furious life in hyper-drive — a life more like those of annual plants or short-lived insects than that of an animal with a spine, said Kris Karsten, the OSU student who published his doctorate research this week in the “Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.”
“It really exemplifies how little we know about a lot of the world,” Karsten said.
Many plants and insects live and die in a year. But among four-legged vertebrates, such a quick life is almost unheard of, Karsten said in an interview.
Fast life may aid survival
For F. labordi, the fast life may be an evolutionary strategy for survival and reproduction, Karsten said.
The chameleon lives in “barren wasteland” desert conditions in southwest Madagascar, a massive island on the Indian Ocean side of Africa.
Chameleons have a tough time living through the dry season. Some bury themselves in the sand in hopes of survival, he said, but that doesn’t always work. Many dry out and die.
The small animal seems to have been selected for an adaptive strategy: its species may have a better chance of survival when living inside a moist egg than when it’s left to face the harsh elements bare, Karsten said.
The chameleon lives four or five months out of its yearlong life, trapped in an egg. It grows to full size — less than 4 inches long — at an incredible rate, Karsten said.
Once the chameleon hatches, it reproduces and dies.
The chameleons mate furiously, using extensions on their noses and skulls to fight each other and attract attention, Karsten said.
“There’s not a lot of room for error,” Karsten said. “If you’re a male chameleon of this species and you can’t find a female to convince to mate, you’ve got no offspring in the next generation.”
Habits intrigued student
It was those strange mating patterns that first drew Karsten to Madagascar to study the chameleons. He had no idea their life cycles were so odd.
Not long after Karsten arrived in the country, though, all of the individuals he’d set out to observe died off all at once, he said.
Karsten was confused and frustrated.
His chance to observe the chameleons and collect information about them seemed finished.
But over four years, Karsten and colleagues in Madagascar and the U.S. returned to observe the chameleons, documenting the same “very bizarre” cycle of life and death among 400 individuals, Karsten said.
Karsten, who is a native of Kansas City, Mo., received his Ph.D. from OSU in May.
He said he hopes the discovery is inspiring to young scientists.
Students at OSU sometimes say they’re disappointed that everything interesting about science has been figured out, he said.
But Karsten finds it thrilling that people still don’t understand the basics of ecology.