On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, 7 baby chameleons!

7 January 2011

It's the gift that keeps on giving - this festive season has seen the birth of baby veiled chameleons every day in the School of Biological Sciences, with an incredible seven babies born on Christmas day and many more on their way.

Watching over the growing brood, PhD student Cissy Ballen has been busy in the animal house feeding and rearing new hatchlings since the first was born seven weeks ago.

"It's certainly been a busy few weeks," says Cissy, who is rearing the chameleons for her PhD under the supervision of Professors Mats Olsson and Rick Shine.

"The babies can be demanding, but it's rewarding to know that they're surviving and healthy. They're like my own little brood. I must have been very good this year as I got an extra-special present for Christmas - a whopping seven babies hatched that day!"

Chameleons are a distinctive family of lizards that possess a suite of unusual traits such as stereoscopic eyes that can move independently of each other and a very long tongue that they shoot out at incredible speeds to catch their prey. The beautiful veiled chameleon, also known as the Yemen chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus), is native to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. A larger species of chameleon, they are generally green in colour and marked with a decorative growth on their heads called a casque.

The veiled chameleons in the School are being reared to form a large laboratory population, which Cissy will use to answer questions on the evolution of male mating success. "With our new chameleons, we plan to characterise the traits that contribute to contest success by conducting intrasexual competition trials," she says.

In the meantime, Cissy is busy watching over her growing brood, which currently totals 35 babies, and making room for new hatchlings every day.

While adult males are usually 40 cm long, new-born chameleons are tiny, on average weighing about one gram and measuring 7 cm. Due to their small size, the babies are fed a diet of the smallest insects available.

"We feed the baby chameleons every day," says Cissy. "They get tiny pinhead crickets which, as their name implies, are no bigger than the head of a pin. We also feed them mini-mealworms that are about 0.5 cm long, but their mass is about 10% that of the average baby chameleon! It's also great to see the babies eating well and growing. My first hatchlings have even doubled in size since they were born."

At only a few weeks old, the veiled chameleons are still practicing their coordination in basic behaviours and Cissy says that watching them learn is one of the highlights of her new job.

"When feeding the new hatchlings, I find it fascinating to watch them use ballistic tongue projections to obtain their food. They misfire quite a bit before mastering the skill!"