Herpetologist sounds warning over falling chameleon numbers

British naturalist Nick Dobbs tells MATTHEW VELLA he believes chameleon numbers have fallen in Malta over three decades of observing the docile reptile during night counts

A British naturalist and herpetologist who has carried out night counts of the Maltese Chameleon populations believes the islands could be experiencing a sudden decline in the naturalised, yet much-loved reptile species.

Nick Dobbs, a frequent visitor to Malta since 1973 and whose daughter Ellie, a conservation biologist, has also worked with Nature Trust Malta, says that over the last three decades, he had witnessed an exponential increase in Mediterranean Chameleon populations during night counts he personally undertakes to monitor localised populations.

“Chameleons are static at night, and this makes for accurate quantifying of numbers on any given walk transect. At some locations, a night survey could yield counts upwards of 50 chameleons,” Dobbs said on the popular Facebook page Maltese Entomol- ogy and Wildlife.

Nick Dobbs
Nick Dobbs

But Dobbs now thinks that in the last two years, the chameleon numbers at regular locations he surveys have been noticeably falling, with counts of less than 10 individuals at night.

“In truth, I can only speculate but the cause is likely to be a number of factors in combination,” Dobbs said about the plummeting numbers.

Dobbs believes that the primary reasons are likely to be climate change and loss of natural habitat, exacerbated by predation from increasing populations of semi-feral cats and brown rats.

“There can be little doubt that the Maltese islands have witnessed two, very hot, prolonged summers in a row. Whilst chameleons are very adept at capitalising on morning dew accumulating on plants for hydration, they are still mainly dependent on invertebrate and insect prey for nourishment,” Dobbs said.

“Although anecdotal, I have no- ticed on my visits in spring, summer, and autumn, that the insect assemblage has been noticeably depleted in 2022/2023 compared to previous years. Even cicada populations appear to be lower at the locations I have visited but acknowledge that this may not be the case islands-wide.”

Dobbs also believes unfettered development across Malta has seen more dumping and leveling of so-called ‘soil’ in the countryside. “This can have a devastating impact on invertebrate populations, not only entombing a whole generation of insects but directly affecting many species higher up the food chain. Medi- terranean Chameleons are oviparous and lay their eggs in soil which may in part account for why their numbers have crashed at L-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa.”

Dobbs also referenced an observation by pest control expert Arnold Sciberras, who reported a noticeable increase in brown rat populations in urban areas. “All four of our native snakes will predate on rats – particularly in relation to raiding pups from a rat nest. However, we have video footage evidence showing that brown rats are perfectly capable of taking on juvenile and subadult snakes either in defence or to consume... are these rats spilling out into the countryside in search of prey with Chameleon now featuring on their menu?”

Chameleons first released in St Julian’s

The Mediterranean Chameleon was introduced in the 19th century by Protestant missionaries who would bring specimens over from North Africa, then released in the gardens of what was later to become the Jesuit College of St Ignatius in St Julian’s.

An arboreal lizard, the female will lay and bury her eggs in a hole near the base of the trunk. But by moving slowly, this creature is of- ten the victim of habitat loss and roadkill due to urbanisation.

“To some, the naturalised Chameleon is a pariah and a soft target for blame for the demise of other species. I think what we may be witnessing is yet another indicator that Maltese wildlife is in real trouble. Some species do experience natural boom and bust cycles but one thing we have learned is that given the chance, nature can recover and can restore balance,” Dobbs said. “But my goodness: it needs a helping hand here in the Maltese islands before it is too late.”

Dobbs, who also works as a membership development manager at the UK’s Countryside Regeneration Trust, has called for greater funding from the State for the designation and regeneration of more nature parks that can help wildlife survive and thrive.

“Local conservation NGOs are scrambling around with small budgets to fund their amazing work, but successive governments have yet to realise the direct correlation between public health and truly natural environments like garrigue. One can create ornamental nature parks but if native wildlife can’t exist in it – it is a blank ecological canvas,” Dobbs said, adding that many threatened species in Malta, such as the leopard snake (lifgħa), should benefit from habitat restoration efforts and threatened species captive breeding and re- lease programmes.

“Without a functioning ecosystem, the Maltese islands are creating a financial time bomb that will impact public health – particularly mental well-being.”