Amazing Pictures: Baby Chameleon Doesn't Know It Hatched

The newborn, curled tightly in an egg-shaped ball, offers a rare insight into the life of a developing reptile.

By Maya Wei-Haas
Published 9 Nov 2017, 03:37 GMT
Barely bigger than a 10p coin, the newborn chameleon has its tail tucked over its shoulder.
Photograph by Nick Henn, Canvas Chameleons

Looks like someone needs a wake-up call: this newborn baby chameleon hadn't yet realised it had hatched.

Nick Henn, owner of Canvas Chameleons in Reading, Pennsylvania, recently captured photographs of the panther chameleon after he helped it break out of its shell. (Also see "Pictures: Miniature Chameleons Discovered—Fit on Match Tip.")

Using cuticle clippers, Henn delicately cut away the egg and expected the baby to jump to attention.

Thinking it was still in its shell, the 10 pence coin-sized reptile stayed curled in an egg-shaped ball, its tail tucked over its shoulder—giving us a rare peek into a developing chameleon's world.  

Normally "you don't get to catch that moment when they first come out," Henn marvels.  

It's unknown why the baby reptile didn't sense it was time to wake up, experts say.
Photograph by Nick Henn, Canvas Chameleons

Bringing Up Baby

Growing up, Henn always longed for a blue panther chameleon, a species native to Madagascar. "It was like my life goal," he says, laughing. Once out of college, Henn started to breed and raise chameleons, particularly his beloved panther chameleons. (See more cool chameleon pictures.)

Under Henn's close watch, the panther chameleon eggs grow in their leathery shells for seven to eight months. When the big day arrives, the chameleon uses a special "egg tooth" on its upper jaw to slit the egg's inner membrane, which then contracts.  

It's "like a swimmer peeling off a wet bathing suit," says Robin Andrews, a biologist at Virginia Tech.

The baby can then crack—or pip—the end of the egg near its head to wiggle free. The whole process can take up to a day.

Panther chameleons are usually a hardy bunch, Henn explains, but this particular baby pipped the side of its egg and got stuck on its way out. In the wild, if a chameleon isn't strong enough to break free of its egg, it dies.

Lights, Camera, Action

Luckily, Henn came to the rescue. But why did the chameleon not wake up right away? No one knows for sure.

It's possible there wasn't much light at the time. In Henn's experience, when captive chameleons are exposed to light, "they wake up and know it is time to rock and roll," Henn says.

Avid sunbathers, chameleons are very sensitive to light, relying on the sun to warm their bodies and set their internal clocks. The reptiles sense light through a receptor on their head. "It’s kind of like a window for them. It senses the time of day and the light cycles," explains Brett Baldwin, animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo.

Overall, incubating chameleon eggs in captivity is a "very tricky and complicated process," says Baldwin. The developing babies are sensitive to any slight differences in humidity and temperature.

In the wild, though, baby chameleons hatch in dark underground burrows, so light shouldn't matter—and may even prevent them from breaking out of the shell, explains Andrews.

"Just looking at the pictures," says Baldwin, "I would have thought, 'Oh, that guy died in the egg.'"

That's the reality in the wild: Many creatures lay a large number of eggs because most of their young won't survive. Tiny chameleons in particular are tasty morsels to predators.

As for this panther chameleon, it's alive and well after its ordeal. Sometimes all you need is a little helping hand.

Follow Maya Wei-Haas on Twitter.



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