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A unique life history among tetrapods: An annual chameleon living mostly as an egg

Karsten, Kristopher B., Andriamandimbiarisoa, Laza N., Fox, Stanley F., Raxworthy, Christopher J.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2008 v.105 no.26 pp. 8980-8984
Chamaeleonidae, adults, breeding, captive animals, death, dry season, eggs, evolution, hatching, juveniles, longevity, sexual maturity, vertebrates, viability, wet season, Madagascar
The [almost equal to]28,300 species of tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrates) almost exclusively have perennial life spans. Here, we report the discovery of a remarkable annual tetrapod from the arid southwest of Madagascar: the chameleon Furcifer labordi, with a posthatching life span of just 4-5 months. At the start of the active season (November), an age cohort of hatchlings emerges; larger juveniles or adults are not present. These hatchlings grow rapidly, reach sexual maturity in less than 2 months, and reproduce in January-February. After reproduction, senescence appears, and the active season concludes with population-wide adult death. Consequently, during the dry season, the entire population is represented by developing eggs that incubate for 8-9 months before synchronously hatching at the onset of the following rainy season. Remarkably, this chameleon spends more of its short annual life cycle inside the egg than outside of it. Our review of tetrapod longevity (>1,700 species) finds no others with such a short life span. These findings suggest that the notorious rapid death of chameleons in captivity may, for some species, actually represent the natural adult life span. Consequently, a new appraisal may be warranted concerning the viability of chameleon breeding programs, which could have special significance for species of conservation concern. Additionally, because F. labordi is closely related to other perennial species, this chameleon group may prove also to be especially well suited for comparative studies that focus on life history evolution and the ecological, genetic, and/or hormonal determinants of aging, longevity, and senescence.