Why is our Chameleon getting so fat?

16 December, 2007

Question: Visitors to the Discovery Centre at Melbourne Museum are amazed to find we have a live chameleon on display.

With her brilliant colours, independently moving eyes, weird feet and unbelievably long tongue, Leela is easily the most popular exhibit in the centre. Recently, however, several people have asked us about her weight...

Answer: Leela is one of three Veiled Chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) found dumped outside a Melbourne pet shop in November 2006. It is illegal to keep chameleons as pets in Australia and dumped exotic animals are usually destroyed. Luckily for Leela and her companions, it was decided that they should come and live at Melbourne Museum under a special permit.

Leela, the Veiled Chameleon

Leela, the Veiled Chameleon
Photographer: Alan Henderson, Source: Museum Victoria

Originally called Leon (as in Chame-Leon), Leela was the smallest of the three and was thought to be a juvenile male. It was therefore a big surprise when, soon after arriving at the museum, “he” laid a batch of eggs.

Live Exhibits staff at Melbourne Museum have been keeping a close eye on Leela’s health and condition. When she laid her eggs in December 2006, her weight dropped from 60 to 40 grams. In the months that followed, she progressively put on weight and by October 2007 weighed over 140 grams!

As specified in her special permit, Leela has been housed on her own since coming into our care. She therefore surprised us when a recent x-ray revealed that she was carrying eggs - again!

X-rays of Leela and her eggs taken in December 2007
Source: Museum Victoria

As it turns out, chameleons can store sperm. Therefore Leela’s eggs must have been fertilised by sperm stored since her last mating. This must have occurred over a year ago, before laying her first batch of eggs or being discovered outside the pet shop.

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