Naturally preferring warm climates, chameleons live in habitats that range from rainforest to dry desert, and chameleons have been found to occur, depending on species, in Africa, Madagascar, Europe, and southern Asia (as far as Sri Lanka). The word chameleon derives from Latin and Greek languages, roughly meaning ‘lion of the ground.’
It’s difficult to even begin to describe a chameleon’s curious appearance. They can range from 0.6 inches up to 27.5 inches in length, and their size and body structure can be very different from species to species. Some have unique decorative features, such as horn-like nasal protrusions or crests on top of their heads, while others have crests of small spikes along their spine that help break up the outline of the chameleon so it blends into its surroundings. The males of many chameleon species tend to be more decorative than the females.
Since most chameleons are tree dwellers, they have developed prehensile (grasping) tails and a highly functional foot structure, often referred to as a zygodactyl foot. On each of their feet, the toes are grouped into either two or three separate, flattened bundles, which give the feet the appearance of tongs. These specialized feet allow chameleons to grip tightly onto narrow branches, and the sharp claws at the end of each toe help these little lizards to readily climb rough surfaces like bark. Even those species that have moved to more terrestrial movement have kept the same toe structure as their tree-top dwelling counterparts.
Continuing to break the mold when it comes to unusual animals, chameleons also have the most distinctive eyes of any reptile. Their upper and lower eyelids don’t move separately, but are completely joined together, leaving only a pinhole opening large enough for the pupil to see through. A chameleon can keep just one eye on you while watching a tasty bug at the same time. Each eye can move, pivot and focus in complete independence, giving them a 360 degree field of vision. In addition, their actual eyesight is excellent in comparison to other reptiles, allowing them to see their prey from as far as 5 to 10 meters away. Their eyes can also detect both visible and ultraviolet light – in fact, ultraviolet exposure plays an important role in regulating a chameleon’s social, feeding, and reproductive activities.
The most renowned characteristic belonging to many species of chameleon is their ability to change their skin color and pattern, usually in combinations of pink, blue, red, orange, black, brown, light blue, yellow, turquoise or purple. Chameleons have two layers within their skin structure, placed on top of one another, that control color change by using a lattice of a substance called guanine nanocrystals. When the chameleon’s body ‘excites’ the lattice, the distance between the nanocrystals increases, changing which wavelengths of light are reflected and absorbed by their skin (therefore changing their color and pattern).
Chameleons will change color not only to camouflage, but also to communicate with others in social situations like courting before mating, or conflict. One species, the Namaqua chameleon, changes color in order to help regulate its body temperature too, turning black in cooler weather to absorb heat, and then lighter grey to reflect light in warmer daytime temperatures. In general, a chameleon will usually show darker colors if they’re angry or trying to scare off other chameleons or animals, but shows lighter and more multicolored patterns when they’re courting to mate.
In order to fuel all of this brilliant body structure, chameleons need to be fairly efficient hunters. They eat mainly insects, though some larger species will also hunt other lizards and sometimes even small birds, catching them by rapidly projecting their long, sticky tongue to capture their prey from afar and bring it into their mouth to eat. Some chameleons can actually project their tongues more than twice the distance of their own body length, and can capture prey in as fast as 0.07 seconds. Many chameleon species will also munch on tender leaves, plant shoots and berries as well to supplement their diet.
Chameleons are mainly external egg-layers (oviparous), though some species retain eggs inside their body until they are ready to hatch (oviviparous). Chameleons who lay eggs will do so three to six weeks after mating, digging a hole in the ground to lay anywhere from two to two hundred eggs, depending on the particular sizes and species. Although eggs of these chameleons generally hatch after 4 to 12 months, the eggs of one species, the Parson’s chameleon, are believed to have an extremely long gestation period of over 24 months.
Oviviparous species, on the other hand, have a gestation period of five to seven months, after which the mother chameleon presses each sticky-surfaced egg onto a branch. The egg membrane then bursts, freeing the new young chameleon to move away, hunt, and hide from predators. An oviviparous female can have up to 30 live young from one gestation period.
THREATS TO CHAMELEONS
There are several species of chameleons that are inhumanely kept in captivity. Every year, a variety of sources provides millions of animals to the exotic pet trade. Animals are captured from their native habitat and transported to various countries to be sold as “pets”. Others are surplus animals from zoos or their offspring. Backyard breeders also supply exotic animals. The sellers of these animals often disregard state or local laws regulating private possession of exotics, and the dangers, difficulties, physical and physiological needs of the animals they peddle. The suffering of the animals in the hands of unqualified and hapless buyers appears to be of no concern in the lucrative exotic pet trade. Reptiles pose safety risks to humans. Many incidents have been reported of escapes, strangulations, and bites from pet reptiles across the country.
Many species of chameleons are threatened with extinction in their natural habitats because of human pollution and deforestation.
These small lizards can also be host to a number of different parasites as well; nematode worms and protozoan parasites like Plasmodium (the parasite that causes malaria) and coccidia have all been noted to be carried by various chameleon species.
Toucans acquired their name from the sound that they make. Their song often resembles frogs croaking. Other species of toucan have a variety of chirps, barks, growls, croaks, and even donkey-like braying as part of their songs. Toucans combine their vocal range with different taps and clicks from their bills. The females of the species tend to have higher vocal ranges than males.
In comparison to North American birds, toucans grow to be quite large. They average just over two feet in height and 20 ounces in weight. The smallest toucan species, the tawny-tufted toucanet, is only about 12.5 inches in height at maturity. Toucans are most recognized for their oversized bill. A full grown toucan, male or female, has a colorful bill seven and a half inches in length, nearly half the size of the bird.
The toucan’s bill serves many functions. Because of its colorful appearance, it was first believed that male toucans used their bills during breeding competition. However, since females possess the same dramatic trait, it is not likely that males are chosen for mating based on their bills. Toucans do use their bills in a particularly fascinating mating ritual in which they toss fruit back and forth to one another.
Although the large, colorful bill may be daunting in size and appearance to rivals, it does not provide much in the way of weaponry. The structure of the bill actually resembles a honeycomb of bone-like material called Keratin. Keratin is what makes up the hair and nails of humans. Much of the structure is made up of air, making it a useless defense mechanism against potential prey. The inside edges of the bill are serrated to aid in catching, grasping and tearing food.
The bill of the toucan may be an ineffectual weapon, but it certainly serves many other important functions. They use it for picking fruit from branches too small to support their considerable weight, and as a tool for stripping away the outer rind of their findings.
Toucans are omnivorous and eat a combination of fruit, vegetation, nuts, seeds and insects. They may even eat small lizards, frogs, birds or the eggs of other birds from time to time if available. Toucans have a long, narrow, feather-like tongue with bristles along the sides. This helps them catch and taste their food before moving it down their throats.
The brightly colored aspect of the birds may be seen as a potential weakness for defense against predators, but because toucans reside in the colorful tropical forests of South America, their coloring actually affords them adequate camouflage. Toucans are mainly black and white, but have variations of yellow, orange and green depending on the species. Toucans are known as particularly vocal birds suggesting that they are not too concerned about predators finding them.
Toucans have a relatively small wingspan, about the length of their own bodies. They are capable of flight, but only for small distances. This is not an obstacle or a risk to the toucan’s safety, as they spend nearly all their lives high in the forest canopy. They seldom make trips to the forest floor.
Toucans navigate the canopy by hopping from branch to branch, gripping with their long, curved toes and sharp claws. Toucans are actually Zygodactyls, meaning they have two toes pointing forwards, and two toes pointing backwards. This foot design aids the toucan in maneuvering up and down tree trunks and in and out of tree cavities.
Toucans reside in flocks of about six birds, although they often forage for food alone. They nest in hollowed out tree cavities, which may seem like a strange choice for birds with such large bills. However, the toucan has an interesting method of getting comfortable in its narrow, enclosed nest. Toucans sleep with their heads against their backs, tucked under one wing. The bird then flips its tail up over its head and settles in for the night.
The toucan is known as a social, playful bird. They travel in search of food in loose groups of up to 22 birds. Preferring fruit over all other food sources, toucans usually begin their day by visiting the fruit trees in their home territory. From there, they may make longer treks in search of new fruit trees. As toucans are digesting they enjoy playful sparring with one another before returning home to roost for the night.
Toucans have approximately two to four eggs each year that both parents care for. Eggs are incubated for about 15 – 18 days before hatching. Young toucans are not born with the signature large bill. It develops as they grow, reaching full size after several months. The birds are considered mature at three to four years of age. The lifespan of the toucan is not known in the wild, but birds in captivity can live to be up to 18 years old.
THREATS TO TOUCANS
Large birds of prey and wildcats native to the tropical forests of the toucan’s habitat also prey upon them. Smaller mammals are likely deterred by the deceptively menacing appearance of the toucan’s bill. Snakes, rats and weasels seek out toucan eggs, but are not known as predatory threats to the birds.
The major threat to the toucan is humans. Aside from hunting the birds, humans also capture the toucan and sell them as pets. Captivity is cruel for wild animals. Animals are captured from their native habitat and transported to various countries to be sold as “pets”. Backyard breeders also supply exotic animals. The sellers of these animals often disregard the dangers, difficulties, physical and physiological needs of the animals they peddle. The suffering of the animals in the hands of unqualified and hapless buyers appears to be of no concern in the lucrative exotic pet trade.
Gopher are small, squirrel-like rodents that live in burrows underground. There are dozens of species of gophers inhabiting the western hemisphere. Gophers live in prairies, woodlands, coastal areas and mountains – anywhere with soft, moist soil.
Gophers dig giant networks of subterranean chambers called gopher towns. Gopher towns comprise extensive systems of tunnels. A gopher town can stretch for enormous distances and can house thousands of resident gophers. Gophers use their front legs and long teeth to push dirt out of their tunnels. Adult gophers usually live near the front of the gopher town and whistle to alert the town members of predators. Like mole mounds, gopher tunneling creates mounds on the surface.
Gophers have long, hard front teeth, tiny ears and small eyes. They have short grey, yellowish-brown or dark brown fur. Gophers have flattened heads, broad forepaws with big claws and short, hairy tails to aid in navigation when moving backwards.
Gophers are omnivorous, eating a variety of seeds, nuts, berries, roots, tubers, grains, grass and insects. Gophers are hoarding animals and store their food in their cheek pouches before taking it back to the gopher burrow, earning them the name “pocket gophers”. Gophers collect an astonishing amount of food for storage.
Gophers are active during the day. They are fossorial, spending most of their time underground. Gophers are usually not social with other gophers, but will amazingly share their burrows with other species including weasels, snakes, squirrels, armadillos, kangaroo rats, woodchucks, lizards and prairie dogs.
Some gophers hibernate during the cold northern winter months. Baby gophers typically hibernate at the start of Autumn during their first year of life. Adult gophers usually start their hibernation at the middle of the summer. Gophers that hibernate will hibernate until spring. Male gophers emerge from hibernation first to establish territories.
Gopher mating season takes place in the spring. Mother gophers are pregnant for 18 to 19 days and give birth to 3 to 4 babies. Female gophers have one or two litters each year. Baby gophers are blind and helpless at birth. They quickly grow and are independent by the age of 5 weeks. Gophers reach sexual maturity at 6 to 12 months old. Gophers live up to 5 years in the wild.
Gophers have a number of predators due to their small size and large populations. Larger mammals, large birds and snakes hunt gophers.
While gophers are often considered pests in rural and urban areas due to the damage they cause to gardens, fields, dams and banks, gophers are actually an important part of the ecosystem. Gophers increase soil fertility by mixing plant and fecal material into soil. Gopher burrowing aerates and tills soil. Gophers speed up the formation of new soil by bringing minerals to the surface.
THREATS TO GOPHERS
Gophers are threatened by loss of habitat and fragmented habitats. The Michoacan pocket gopher is endangered. The big pocket gopher and the tropical pocket gopher are critically endangered. The desert pocket gopher is listed as near threatened. The Mazama subspecies is the most endangered gopher, due to loss of natural habitat from urbanization. Gophers are also frequently harassed by humans that consider gophers pests.
The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is a small carnivorous North American mammal closely related to the steppe polecat of Russia, and a member of the diverse family Mustelidae which also includes weasels, mink, polecats, martens, otters, and badgers. It should not be confused with the domesticated ferret.
The black-footed ferret is the most endangered mammal in North America. They became extinct in the wild in Canada in 1937, and were classified as endangered in the U.S. in 1967. The last known wild population was taken into captivity in the mid-1980s, a few years after its accidental discovery in Wyoming.
Black-footed ferrets are about 18 inches long, with a furry 6 inch tail, and they weigh roughly 2 pounds. Like most members of the family, they are very low to the ground with an elongated body and very short legs. Their fur is white at the base but darkens at the tips, making them appear yellowish-brown overall, with black feet and tail-tip, and a distinctive black face mask. These blend in well with the prairie ecosystem in which they live. They do not change their habitat over the seasons.
Even before their numbers declined, black-footed ferrets were rarely seen: they weren't officially recognized as a species by scientists until 1851, following publication of a book by naturalist John James Audubon and Rev. John Bachman. Even then, their existence was questioned since no other black-footed ferrets were reported for over twenty years.
They are nocturnal hunters that are almost entirely dependent on a plentiful supply of prairie dogs to prey on, and shelter in a prairie dog burrow during the day. A single family of four black-footed ferrets eats about 250 prairie dogs each year and cannot survive without access to large colonies of them.
Historical habitats of the black-footed ferret included shortgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, desert grassland, shrub steppe, sagebrush steppe, mountain grassland and semi-arid grassland. Black-footed ferrets use prairie dog burrows for raising young, avoiding predators and thermal cover. High densities of prairie dog burrows provide the greatest amount of cover for black-footed ferrets.
Black-footed ferrets are believed to be polygynous. Mating occurs in February and March. When a male and female in estrus encounter each other, the male sniffs the genital region of the female, but does not mount her until after a few hours have elapsed. During copulation, the male grasps the female by the nape of the neck, with the copulatory tie lasting from 1 1/2 to 3 hours. Unlike other mustelids, the black-footed ferret has low reproductive rates. Gestation of black-footed ferrets lasts 42–45 days. Litter size ranges from 1–5 kits. Kits are born in May and June in prairie dog burrows. Kits are raised by their mother for several months after birth. They first emerge above ground in July, at 6 weeks old. They are then separated into individual prairie dog burrows around their mother's burrow. Kits reach adult weight and become independent several months following birth, from late August to October. Sexual maturity occurs at one year of age.
The black-footed ferret is solitary, except when breeding or raising litters. They primarily hunt for sleeping prairie dogs in their burrows. They are most active above ground from dusk to midnight and 4 am to mid-morning. Above ground activity is greatest during late summer and early autumn when juveniles become independent. They are inactive inside burrows for up to 6 days at a time during winter.
Female black-footed ferrets have smaller home ranges than males. Home ranges of males may sometimes include the home ranges of several females. Adult females usually occupy the same territory every year. Black-footed ferrets may travel up to 11 miles to seek prey.
The loss of their prairie grassland habitat, hunting, the drastic reduction of prairie dog numbers through both habitat loss and poisoning, canine distemper and sylvatic plague all contributed to the near-extinction of the species during the 19th and 20th centuries.
For a time, the black-footed ferret was harvested for the fur trade. The large drop in black-footed ferret numbers began during the 1800s, lasting through the 1900s, as prairie dog numbers declined because of "control programs" and the conversion of prairies to croplands. Sylvatic plague, a disease introduced into North America, also contributed to the prairie dog die-off. Inbreeding may have also contributed, as studies on black-footed ferrets revealed low levels of genetic variation. Canine distemper devastated the Meeteetse ferret population in 1985. A live virus vaccine originally made for domestic ferrets killed large numbers of black-footed ferrets, thus indicating that the species is especially susceptible to distemper.
In 1981, a very small population of about 130 animals was discovered near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Soon after discovery, the population began a rapid decline due to disease. By 1986, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department led a cooperative program to capture the 18 remaining animals and begin an intensive captive breeding program. At that time, the entire world population amounted to about 50 individuals in captivity.
U.S. federal and state agencies, in cooperation with private landowners, conservation groups, Native Americans, and North American zoos, have been actively reintroducing ferrets back into the wild since 1991. Beginning in Wyoming, reintroduction efforts have since expanded to sites in Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Chihuahua, Mexico. Proposed reintroduction sites have been identified in Canada.
Currently, about 1,200 ferrets are thought to live in the wild.
Conservation efforts have been opposed by stock growers and ranchers, who have traditionally fought prairie dogs. In 2005, the U.S. Forest Service began poisoning prairie dogs in private land buffer zones of the Conata Basin of Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota. When a few ranchers complained the measure was inadequate, the forest service expanded its "prairie-dog management" in September 2006 to all of South Dakota's Buffalo Gap and the Fort Pierre National Grassland, and also to the Oglala National Grassland in Nebraska, against opinions of biologists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Following exposure by conservation groups and national media, public outcry and a lawsuit mobilized federal officials and the poisoning plan was revoked.
THREATS TO BLACK-FOOTED FERRETS
Despite significant recovery successes, the black-footed ferret remains one of the most endangered animals in the world. The primary reasons the species remains at risk are the same that nearly caused the animal’s extinction. Conversion of native grasslands to agricultural land, widespread prairie dog eradication programs, and fatal, non-native diseases have reduced ferret habitat to less than two percent of its original range. The remaining habitat is now fragmented, with prairie dog towns separated by expanses of agricultural land and other human developments.
Poisoning and shooting of prairie dogs continues, threatening both prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. There are no known black-footed ferret populations that were not reintroduced. All those populations remain small and fragmented. They have lost about 90 percent of their genetic diversity, which can lead to inbreeding, health issues and reduced reproduction. Without the protection of prairie dogs, black-footed population could dwindle again and be lost forever.