Interview with Jan Stipala

Trace

Captain Awesome
Dr. Jan Stipala is a well known biologist at the University of Exeter. He has written several scientific papers on chameleons and is also the author of the new book Mountain Dragons. Thank you, Dr. Stipala, for taking the time to answer these interview questions for our community. Everyone at Chameleon Forums wishes you continued success with your research.
website: www.mountaindragons.com

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1: Let’s begin with a simple introduction. Who are you and what do you do?

Currently I work as a lab technician at the University of Exeter in the south-west of England. I completed my PhD thesis a couple of years ago on chameleon diversity in the highlands of East Africa, although most of the field work was conducted in Kenya.​


2: When did your interest in reptiles begin? What drew you to chameleons?

I became interested in reptiles through reading wildlife books, watching TV programmes and visiting London zoo every birthday. Snakes were my first passion but reptile books introduced me to chameleons and my fascination with them grew. By my early teens I was hooked and desperately wanted to keep them. Chameleons have such specialised morphology and behaviour with their leaf-like body shape, strange grasping feet, bulging eyes, long projectile tongue and colour changing abilities, you can’t help but want to see them close-up. And many species have bizarre head ornamentation, crests and body spines that give them a remarkable appearance.​


3: Can you tell us a little about your education and academic pursuits?

I graduated from the University of Nottingham in 1993 with a Biology honours degree. But I did not return to higher education for many years. I was involved in various biology related projects and jobs: a field trip to study giant otters in Bolivia; some brief work on the conservation of the green-and-gold bell frog in Sydney, Australia; and a year as a researcher working for the BBC Natural History Unit making wildlife films. I finally ended up with the Environment Agency managing databases but I was restless with a desk job so I decided to start reading everything I could on chameleons with the idea of doing a research project myself. I was particularly interested in the montane chameleons of East Africa and I was amazed to see that people like Colin Tilbury and Petr Necas were still discovering new species. I put together some ideas for a proposal and eventually signed up for a Masters Degree at the University of Exeter. The original plan had been to take a year out from my job to do the field and lab work, then return to my office job to write up my thesis. I collected a lot of data and made numerous interesting discoveries and my supervisor suggested that I should consider converting to a PhD. It did seem possible as I was self-funded but then I took up a part-time technician job that came up in my biology department, and this allowed me to complete my PhD part-time. My research was a combination of molecular and morphological work. The molecular work in particular has revealed some interesting patterns of intra-specific variation in several species from the Trioceros genus (bitaeniatus group), particularly in Trioceros jacksonii, T. hoehnelii and T. sternfeldi.​


4: You recently published an outstanding book called Mountain Dragons In search of chameleon diversity in the highlands of Kenya (www.mountaindragons.com). Tell us a little about that. How long was it in the making?

The idea for the book was formed at the start of my PhD research project. I began the book after I finished my PhD and took about 18 months of intensive work. I wrestled with various ideas for a book and eventually settled on covering the research project itself to show people the process that results in taxonomic research papers and new species descriptions. The book is divided into sections reflecting the way the project progressed. The first section has background information and maps to explain why East Africa has such a high diversity of chameleons, the chameleon species that were the focus of the research and why, who were worked with and some of the practical problems we faced along the way (big mammals, guns and vehicle breakdowns). Working in East Africa is not easy. The main section of the book is a sort of travelogue with hundreds of photos. The East African highlands are as a fascinating environments and I wanted to show not just the chameleons but the beautiful landscapes, habitats and people. As well as captions to images there are two short stories of the more exciting parts of the trip to give the reader a view of our day to day work exploring high mountains and the excitement of finding chameleons. Montane environments are so unlike the rolling savannah grasslands with big game that most people associate with East Africa, with severe weather and I hope the images and text convey that uniqueness. The next section of the book contains species profiles and includes new information on many species that we collected during our field work. The final section contains some data and analyses from our research. There are some very interesting patterns of variation within T. jacksonii and T. hoehnelii and results suggest that cryptic species many be present, although more research is needed.​


5: Will we see more articles, books or video documentaries from you in the future?

I would like to make an extensive survey of the highlands of Tanzania. There are definitely new species of chameleon to be discovered there. However as always it comes down to time and money and it is difficult to get funding. I am planning to publish some remaining chapters from my thesis on T. jacksonii, T. hoehnelii and the rudis/sternfeldi group. There is also another paper on Kinyongia excubitor. Each species contains multiple genetic lineages and some may represent cryptic species.​


6: What is it about the family Chamaeleonidae that continues to draw your attention?

Chameleons have so many unique specialisations for arboreal life and yet as a group they have managed to colonise a very wide diversity of habitats and climatic zones, including terrestrial environments, deserts, and cold montane environments. There is huge variation in body size and secondary sexual characters. So they are an interesting group of lizards to investigate the roles sexual and natural selection in driving morphological variation and also how that might drive speciation.​


7: You have participated in various reptile and chameleon related trips or expeditions worldwide. Do you have a favourite location or perhaps one that you look forward to visiting the most?

I always look for reptiles when I travel but I must admit I haven’t done many reptile specific trips other than a trip to look for chameleons in East Africa. I spent a month in Tanzania exploring the Usambara Mountains and briefly visited Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro. I visited Mount Kenya a couple of times in 1992 and 2002 to look for T. schubotzi – a species that interests me because it lives only at high elevations and in an extreme environment. The afroalpine zone is also an amazing place with its bizarre vegetation and the beautiful backdrop of Mount Kenya’s snowy peaks.
There are many places I would like to visit to see chameleons but the Ruwenzori Mountains is probably top of my list with several endemic chameleon species, amazing vegetation from the high rainfall and spectacular peaks. A road trip through Ethiopia to Mozambique, around Madagascar or through South Africa would be great, just to see the chameleon diversity in these regions.​


8: What are your thoughts on chameleon conservation and the sustainability of current populations over time? How many chameleon species do you expect to exist 50 or 100 years from now?

Many chameleons are range restricted and vulnerable to various man-made influences: habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Research done in the East Usambara Mountains has shown that forest fragment size was correlated with chameleon population density. Collecting for the pet trade may also be another threat to some populations. There have only been a few studies investigating the impact of these anthropogenic effects.
Certainly some chameleon species seem to adapt readily to agricultural and urban landscapes, while others require intact primary forest to survive, such as Brookesia species. Species are also facing more specific problems such as fires, which affect afroalpine specialists (T. schubotzi and T. kinangopensis) and some South African Fynbos species (Bradypodion). Climate change is likely to also make many of these problems worse. For example, drought years in Kenya result in more frequent fires in the afroalpine zone on Mt. Kenya.
It is becoming apparent that we cannot easily predict the effects of anthropogenic climate change and unpredictable weather patterns are likely to have negative influences on chameleon populations, especially those that are seasonal breeders. In the long term those species living in small fragmented populations will be less resilient to extinction. It’s hard to predict how things will look 50 or 100 years from now. It is important to document the current range of species, their ecological requirements and population densities as this will help conservationists to assess any future population changes and those species that should be the focus of conservation efforts.
I think many chameleon keepers probably wonder whether the pet trade is having an impact on chameleon populations. There have been no long term studies to assess that impact of collecting on local populations. However, chameleons produce relatively large numbers of offspring and populations may be resilient to moderate collecting pressure. Trade in rarer species from countries like Madagascar was shut down and now only a few common species are exported. Recently concerns have been raised about the large numbers of Rhampholeon species appearing in the pet trade currently, some of which are classified as endangered (e.g. Rhampholeon spinosus) and this should be stopped.
If anyone is interested in learning about which species are threatened they should go to the IUCN redlist website (www.iucnredlist.org and search on ‘chameleon’). Conservation status assessments have been compiled on individual species to determine threats and chances of long term survival. I have been contributing information for several reports on East African species, currently being compiled by Prof. Krystal Tolley and others. I would recommend all chameleon keepers take a look at this site. There is also an IUCN Chameleon Specialist Group on Facebook and that group is a great source of news about current chameleon research.​


9: What can keepers and enthusiasts do to best promote conservation? Are there any conservation efforts you think are worth promoting?

There are so many issues, big and small it’s hard to know what to suggest. Joining and donating money to charities focused on wildlife/ environmental conservation (WWF, FFI, Greenpeace etc.) is something that everyone can do even if they don’t have time to pursue conservation work themselves. Take an interest in the big issues like climate change is important. Websites like Mongabay.com are great for keeping in touch in what’s going on out there, although I am sure there are many others.
If people wanted to contribute to chameleon conservation they could do it indirectly by raising and donating funds for organisations that are involved in habitat protection and biodiversity surveys in countries where chameleon environments are under severe pressure. Madagascar is probably one region where forests are under huge pressure from a steadily increasing population and chameleon diversity is also very high. The mountain habitats of Tanzania are also facing numerous threats. There are various conservation organisations and initiatives in these countries that need support either in person (volunteers) or financially.​


10: You have studied or researched a large number of chameleon species. Which are your favourites and why?

My studies have so far been limited to East African species. I have worked on the systematics of the two-horned chameleons of East Africa and some of those two-horned chameleons are beautiful. However, finding Rhampholeon spinosus in the Usambara Mountains was most exciting. It is a remarkable looking little chameleon and incredibly hard to find but we found a couple in trees ferns. Trioceros schubotzi is also a fascinating little species for the tough environment it lives in. The Jackson’s chameleon may be one of my favourite species for the colour and morphological variations that exist and the way the males fight with their horns.​


11: Do you expect new chameleon species to be discovered in the future?

There are certainly many more species out there that have not yet been described. I have seen photos of strange looking chameleons from remote mountains ranges, unfortunately the specimens were not collected and so this species awaits formal description. There are still mountain ranges in East Africa that have barely been visited by biologists and main have unique chameleons on them.
There are probably quite a few cryptic species out there i.e. species that are morphologically very variable and widespread but probably represent species complexes. Studies of Kinyongia fischeri, Calumma breivorne and the South African dwarf chameleons (Bradypodion) revealed multiple evolutionary linages and resulted in new taxa being described.
The internet is also a surprising source of information. I have seen photos of small chameleons from high elevations on Kilimanjaro and other Tanzanian mountains that look more like schubotzi than sternfeldi. As with all these potential discoveries, it is very difficult to get the funding to get the field work and molecular work. Often dedicate amateurs are the people that get out there and make these discoveries.


12: Are you working with any chameleon species now?

I am currently writing a paper on the sternfeldi group and new species may be described as a result of that work. Trioceros jacksonii merumontana should probably be elevated to a full species based on morphology, genetics and in captivity there is strong evidence of behavioural isolation from the other jacksonii subspecies. So that is another paper that needs to eventually be published. For those that can’t wait, my book ‘Mountain Dragons’ contains some of that information!​
 
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Trace

Captain Awesome
I may be a little biased because the book centers on some of my favourite species, but I can comfortably say it would be an excellent addition to the library of any chameleon enthusiast.
The book Mountain Dragons can be purchased here: http://mountaindragons.com/

Chris Anderson wrote a great review of the book. Chameleon News Book Review: Mountain Dragons.
 

Chris Anderson

Dr. House of Chameleons
Staff member
Great interview. Glad to see Jan share some of his experiences with the forum like this! His new book is definitely worth getting. Some incredible photos and information in it!

Chris
 

CarlC

Established Member
Great interview!

This book is a must have for anyone thinking about working with jacksonii jacksonii or hoehnelii. The photos are excellent! The habitat and climate details will be a big help with long term care.

Carl
 
Looks very informative and very focused one a certain area that interests me when it comes to chameleon species..

I will be getting this book as i`m sure it would help a bunch with montane species care !!
 

Motherlode Chameleon

Chameleon Enthusiast
That was an interesting short interview. Thanks for posting! I am going to have to pick up a copy of this book for my chameleon book library collection.

Best Regards
Jeremy A.Rich
 

JacobH

Member
Anyone on here buy this book? I keep getting tempted to order but haven't done so yet, looks like $76 dollars once it is shipped over seas.
 

Trace

Captain Awesome
Yeah once the shipping was tacked on it was a little spendy. That said I guess it depends on what you want out of a book. I’m way past the beginner stage of keeping so I prefer something with a little meat on it as opposed to a book with pretty pictures. Although this one does have some stellar photographs in it!

Again I might be biased as the subject matter focuses on the species I’m most interested in. The information is current and comprehensive without being dry. Along with one or two other books, Mountain Dragons has become one of my ‘go-to’ texts. I say go for it!

Fellow mod Chris Anderson wrote a review about the book for the Chameleon Ezine. It can be found here: http://chameleonnews.com/14JunAndersonMountainDragons.html

I believe you can see sample pages from the book on Dr. Stipala’s site: http://mountaindragons.com/
 

CarlC

Established Member
There is no better book to date that covers montane species. Don't expect to find care information on the individual species. What you will find is tons of information on the natural conditions of Kenyan montane species. The pictures are absolutely stunning.

Carl
 
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