National Geographic : 1988 Nov
0 Inhabitant in "the naturalists' promised land" Mankind came late to Mada gascar, perhaps only 1,500 years ago. The newcomers found resident populations of distinctive plants and animals that had developed during the 165 million years since the island was wrenched from the African Continent by tectonic forces. Scientists have been enthralled by that wild life. "Nature seems to have retreated there into a private sanctuary, where she could work on different models from any she has used elsewhere," a French naturalist wrote in 1771, calling Madagascar "the natu ralists' promised land . . . There you meet bizarre and marvelous forms at every step." Zoologist Alison Jolly agrees, writing in the February 1987 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, "Any question you ask about nature's possibilities may have an an swer in Madagascar." Among the creatures arousing wonder are chameleons. Half the known species of this Old World lizard, including the larg est and smallest, are found there. Like the Parson's chame leon (drawing), they have evolved highly specialized features. Most people are aware of the chameleon's ability to change color in response to light, tem perature, and aggression. Equally curious are chame leon eyes. Each rotates independently to seek out prey; both ' focus together lyd -. to gauge # distances ahead. Then with uncommon accuracy the lizard's sticky tongue flicks out to snare insects or, in the case of large chameleons, hatchling birds. Equally unlikely are chame leon feet. The toes are posi tioned so that all four legs can grasp a slender branch below the body. Chameleons walk with a hesitating gait, giving rise to a Madagascar proverb: "The chameleon counts his steps wherever he goes."