New chameleon species may be world’s smallest reptile

About the size of a sunflower seed, the newly described creature from Madagascar may already be critically endangered.

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A female Brookesia nana chameleon in Madagascar. The species is likely the smallest reptile on Earth.

Scientists have discovered a tiny new species of chameleon in a patch of rainforest in northern Madagascar. This so-called nano-chameleon is about the size of a sunflower seed, fits on the tip of a finger, and may be the smallest reptile on Earth.

Officially known as Brookesia nana, or B. nana for short, the new species is so tiny it’s thought to survive on a diet of mites and springtails, which it hunts down in leaf litter.

“At the first glance, we realized that it was an important discovery,” says Andolalao Rakotoarison, a Malagasy herpetologist and coauthor of the new study published in Scientific Reports.

Finding such a small reptile raises interesting questions about the lower limits of body size in vertebrates. It also highlights the astonishing—and highly threatened—biodiversity of Madagascar. Scientists suspect the chameleon will soon be listed as critically endangered.

Lurking in grass

Like other chameleons, this tiny reptile possesses a projectile tongue which it uses to nab prey. The creatures have found a successful niche in their native habitat, hunting by day on the rainforest floor and retreating to the safety of grass blades at night.

If a larger predator comes calling in the dark, the wobble of the grass stalk alerts the chameleon of danger, at which point it just drops off into the underbrush, says Mark Scherz, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Potsdam in Germany and coauthor of the study.

So far, scientists have observed just two individuals: One male and one female,...

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