Mysterious Inhabitants of the Greek Islands

Interview of blogger Eva Žilková with Petr Nečas for Fantastic Travel.cz

It sits in the bushes, well hidden from our sight. And yet they watch us closely. Perfectly camouflaged, they watch the world around them with big eyes. They were here before the heroes of ancient myths. Who is it about? About chameleons. Believe it or not, these fascinating creatures live not only in Africa, but also in Greece and its islands. Maybe you met them, and you had no idea that they had you in their focus...

The ancient Greeks knew chameleons very well. After all, the word chameleon comes from the Greek: chamai - on the ground, leon - lion. They attributed many strange, sometimes frightening, abilities to the chameleons. For example, if a hawk flies over a chameleon, it will will fall dead to the ground. A dead chameleon has the ability to cause a storm or give a person invisibility.

The historian Plutarch used a chameleon and his ability to transform into lightning as a description of the repulsive qualities of General Alkibiad, an all-able defector from the bloody Peloponnesian War. On the contrary, Aristotle approached chameleons purely scientifically by devoting a whole chapter to them in his work Historia Animalium. It is not without interest that one of Aristotle's disciples wore the name Chamaeleon.

However, even though the Greek chameleons knew and studied them, there is no chameleon in any Greek myth, its depiction cannot be found in the famous Greek pottery. Were the ancient Greeks afraid of chameleons? Did the unpredictable creature hunting with lightning-thrown tongue arouse such respect in them that they preferred to avoid it? Who knows...

Anyway, we can still meet chameleons in Greece today. We will talk about them with Petr Nečas, a world expert in chameleons.


Peter, I'm glad you accepted my invitation. You study chameleons for a very long time, you write books about them. So, what about chameleons really? Should we be as careful about them as the ancient Greeks?

Of course yes! But for a completely different reason. Finding a chameleon in the wild is an unforgettable experience. They are completely unusual animals, which are entwined with so many legends because they look like a prank of nature. Judge for yourself: which other creature can boast such a combination of unique and unusual characteristics as a chameleon? Independently moving eyes, tick-like limbs resembling tweezers, a tail that twists under the body like a hydrant hose, leather capable of incredible color exchange, firing tongue ...

And that's not all ...

That's not all ... So there is something to the abilities that the ancient Greeks attributed to chameleons - the art of killing a bird, invisibility?

It's complicated with legends. All legends, without exception, have a piece, or at least a core of truth. You know: it's not in spite to ... For example, the belief that chameleons can kill a bird in flight is justified. It hasn't been long since I published a relatively sensational article with a colleague from the United States Mindy Miskuff about how chameleons can shoot a flying bird with their tongue. But they do it only rarely. Their common food is small insects from flies, bees and wasps to grasshoppers.

What has probably fascinated man the most about chameleons since ancient times is the ability to change colors in a fraction of a second. How do they do it and is it a sign of treachery?

The ability of chameleons in chameleons is given by a combination of two specialized types of cells that they have in the skin. The so-called melanocytes, which cluster or, conversely, disperse the melanin pigment, are responsible for the dark or light coloration, and as a result the chameleons either lighten or darken. However, the mechanism of color formation has only recently been elucidated by science, a few years ago. Chameleons have nanocrystals in specialized cells in the skin that are able to rotate and deform so that the reflected light, like on an optical prism, produces light of a certain wavelength (and thus color), and then combine it to form a variety of colors.

From an evolutionary point of view, the evolutionary ability has the task of making an animal look similar to its surroundings so that its enemies cannot find it. However, chameleons use the active ability of color change not to be visible but, on the contrary, to be visible. They use various colors and patterns for their intraspecific communication. Because they are deaf and feel almost nothing with their taste or nose, they rely only on visual signals in their orientation in space. Secondly, chameleons use their ability to color change in order to know their belonging to their or another species and for thermoregulation.

In the morning, the cold chameleon is exposed to sunlight and darkens so that it can absorb heat rays more easily. On the contrary, when it overheats, it lightens to almost white to reflect unnecessary heat rays. The color of chameleons also depends on their health and mood. As you can see, the color change of chameleons is certainly not a sign of treachery, but a means by which these tiny and marvelous creatures survive alongside those far more powerful for tens of millions of years.

Where in Greece can we meet a chameleon and what kind of species is it?

Greece, and this is really interesting and unique, is the only European country in terms of chameleon, where two species live in the wild. The so-called common chameleon lives on the islands of Samos, Rhodes and Crete, and the African chameleon lives in the southwest of the Peloponnese. The island's populations are natural and indigenous, chameleons have lived there since time immemorial. But the origin of the population in the area of ​​the city of Gialova in the southwest of the Peloponnese is shrouded in mystery. The African Chameleon has nothing to do there! Apparently he got there in historical times and it is quite possible that already in antiquity, thanks to the intensive trade between Greece and lower Egypt, where this African chameleon occurs in the Nile Delta.

Whether he got there by the mischief of Greek merchants or sailors who took him on a trade trip with him as a living flytrap, or just an individual got caught in the bags of agricultural products, we'll probably never know. What is certain, however, is that due to the climatic anomaly of the local huge lagoon, which has temperatures several degrees higher than normal in the latitudes, the population of the African chameleon has been preserved on several tens of hectares to this day.

When we come across a chameleon, how should we treat him?

Don't worry, we certainly won't come across a chameleon! But if you're lucky, you can notice him either sitting somewhere on a bush and rolling his eyes at you and an insect that he could eat, or you can meet him staring across the road with his tail outstretched and swaying at it like leaves in the wind, on a pilgrimage from one bush to another.

If Luck kisses you in this way, just stand still and enjoy that moment of contact with one of the most extraordinary creatures in the world. Watch him and maybe he will give you his favor and show you something from his range of juggling pieces, whether from the repertoire of shooting at a target or from the area of ​​changing different colored coats.

If you find it crossing the road, then please try to stop the traffic so that it does not get damaged. Let him either walk alone where he's headed, or find a longer stick to climb on, and drop it across the road, preferably a tree or shrub.

Can a chameleon be dangerous? Trying to take a selfie as a souvenir is probably not the best idea ...

It is ridiculous to label such a small creature, who without a tail measures a maximum of 12 - 15 centimeters dangerous, but know that a chameleon can bite very noticeably - up to the blood - if handled improperly! So please don't touch him. Another reason not to do so is because you can get in trouble with the law. Chameleons are strictly protected throughout Europe and their capture and manipulation is illegal.

On the contrary, a self-portrait with a chameleon, especially when you take photos against the background of the bush on which the chameleon is sitting, is a perfect idea! You can then have fun with your friends for hours by looking for him in a photo in that bush. :-)

If you are really lucky to find a chameleon and behave the way I just advised, then know that there is a legend that whoever finds a chameleon does not touch him, leaves him on a bush and smiles, may wish one big wish, but he must make it until the chameleon looks away from him. So definitely prepare your secret wish so that you can double your happiness from meeting this mysterious creature. Where does this legend come from? I just made it up. But you will surely forgive me, because as a traveler you know very well that every traveler carries his happiness hidden in his palm!

Peter, thank you very much for a very interesting interview! I think that from now on in Greece I will look not only at the ancient temples, but also at the ubiquitous grate, whether there is a hidden chameleon in it. Maybe I'll be lucky...