The Great Chameleon Search

Latest update November 15, 2018 Started on September 24, 2018

An intrepid search for Africa's rarest mountain dragons. I am conducting an expedition to discover, study, and conserve the chameleons of Uganda. The target of my trip is to find the elusive and cryptic, Tolley's Forest Chameleon, a species that was only just discovered in 2017. Follow along!

Check out the news coverage of our new species discovery:

Also, check out my website for more information:

September 24, 2018
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In The Field

I got by with a little help from my friends: Thanks to all who contributed to making this expedition so successful!

Funding: The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund - This expedition would not have been possible without the generous support from this great organization.

Fieldwork: Mathias Behangana - A sincere debt of gratitude is owed to Mathias, who works very hard to facilitate our research program in Uganda. Thanks, Mathias!

Joseph Isingoma - A very, very special thanks to Joseph who spent over two full weeks with me in the bush and was truly a colossal help with chameleon surveys. Joseph was a real pleasure to work with and I hope to do so again soon!

Jaclyn Adams - A big thank you to Jaclyn for braving the jungles with me at night during her first trip to Africa. Jaclyn was a warrior!

Wilber Lukwago - Many thanks to Wilber for his assistance in Bwindi and many more thanks for all of his tremendous help during my previous expeditions. Looking forward to seeing Wilber again soon!

Waswa Sadic - Sadic generously donated some of his hard-fought and valuable specimens, so thank you.

Driver extraordinaire: Bob Katabazi - Driver, photographer, translator... this guy did it all! A big thanks to Bob for everything.

Check out the photojournal of our expedition which is set to the theme song for this year's trip ("Home to Africa" by PJ Powers ft. Radio & Weasel). Enjoy!

Till next expedition! Cheers! Danny Hughes on 15 November 2018 in Urbana, IL USA

Fantastic beasts and where we found them: Queen Elizabeth National Park

Our final night at Bwindi resulted in some of the most spectacular chameleon finds. We landed the first recapture of our target species, ever! It was a female with eggs that we captured during a previous search and we found her on the final night in a nearby tree. This was a fantastic find of an even more fantastic beast! Tolley's Forest Chameleon prefers to sleep high in the forest canopy, often 5 meters (16 feet) and sometimes higher. So, finding them means a whole lot of neck cramps from constantly craning our heads towards the canopy. It also means that they can be incredibly difficult to spot, so, finding a recaptured individual was really great. Another fantastic beast we found that night was a pygmy chameleon, which signified a number of firsts: a first for me of this species at that elevation in Bwindi and a first for our surveys at Bwindi this year. All in all, we found more of the target species at Bwindi than at Rwenzori and Kibale combined.

We left Bwindi on the 5th and headed to the hot and arid lowlands. We had now set our sights on some of Uganda's larger beasts, namely the tree-climbing lions of Ishahsa in the southern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is continuous with Virunga National Park in DR Congo. The lions of Ishasha are famous for lounging in the fig trees in this section of the park, but as it turns out, all lions will climb trees and it just depends on whether there are trees worthy of climbing in their range. We learned later that lions will even sleep in large candelabra cacti! We made several attempts to locate these arboreal cats but we had no luck. So, we headed north towards the Kasinga Channel, an aquatic link between Lake Edward and Lake George, which harbors some of the densest populations of hippos and crocodiles in the world. Before even arriving at the channel, we encountered a family of elephants at the roadside. They must've been visiting their favorite watering hole because they paid no attention to us and just played in the water. We had some of our best luck on the Kasinga Channel, seeing many buffalos, hippos, Nile monitors and crocs.

The next day we got up early to track lions in Kasenyi, a large grassland in the northern section of Queen. Our guide James had been tracking lions for nearly 20 years and he assured us that we would catch a glimpse of these big cats, and he was not wrong. We eventually saw more than 10 cats in less than an hour, including a family (1 mom and 7 cubs) that was sleeping in a large cactus with a freshly devoured waterbuck just nearby. We could also see the bones of other kills around this cactus, an ominous site that made the area feel more like a graveyard than the African savanna of the lion king.

From Queen, we had one more stop before flying back home. We headed back to Kibale, but instead of chameleons, we sought out the other great ape, the chimpanzee. Kibale has a very large group of chimpanzees that have been habituated so that tourists can visit, nearly 200 individuals in all. They move in smaller groups, usually around 10-20. We left our car on a dirt road and walked just a short bit into the forest when we were greeted by a chorus of excited chimpanzees. It wasn't long before we were then seeing them, high in the forest canopy while they moved effortlessly from tree to tree eating fresh leaves. After a few minutes of observing a large male way up high, he decided to come down and walk through our group. We were amazed, a chimpanzee walked right by us all. The big male walked a bit more while we followed slowly, then he decided to rest on the forest floor, and we spent the next 30 minutes a few feet away from a sleeping chimpanzee. Check out the pictures below of these truly fantastic beasts!

After these once in a lifetime finds, we headed back to Kampala to catch our flight out of Entebbe on the 10th at midnight. A spectacular trip filled with many chameleons and other wonderful creatures.

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Chameleons in the mist: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Our final destination to find chameleons is in a rainforest so thick and dense with vegetation that it has impenetrable twice in its name (Bwindi means impenetrable, so, it’s really “Impenetrable Impenetrable National Park”). Bwindi is located in southwestern Uganda, near the border with Congo. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it is the only place in the world where both great apes occur “in harmony” (at least that’s what our ranger told us): Chimpanzees and Mountain Gorillas. During previous searches at Bwindi in 2014, we were successful in finding several chameleon species, including Tolley’s Forest Chameleon. At that time, however, it was known as a different species, one that was not of conservation concern because it could be found at many mountains in the Albertine Rift. Based on those valuable specimens collected in 2014 from Bwindi, in combination with DNA data from many populations across the rift, we detected three cryptic species previously thought to be one. One of these new species was Tolley’s Forest Chameleon, which had an apparent limited geographic distribution, small population sizes, and an uncertain conservation outlook. With our return visit to Bwindi this year, we are hoping to fill in these major gaps for this rare species and bring its conservation assessment into the 21st century.

After a few days of rest in Kampala, we picked up Jaclyn from Entebbe airport and set off to Bwindi. Our first night of chameleon trekking, was on Halloween, so instead of handing out candy to costume-laden kids in the US, we were searching for chameleons at night in an East African rainforest, quite the change from last Halloween! On that ominous date, we found 17 chameleons during a nearly 6-hour trek that began at sundown (7 PM) and ended early the next morning (1 AM). Of those 17 chameleons, we found four individuals of our target species–a new record for me!–and 13 Johnston’s Three-horned Chameleons. We have now conducted surveys along that same trail for four nights and have encountered 67 chameleons of these two species, including 17 individuals of Tolley’s Forest Chameleon. Several of these chameleons were females that were full of eggs, a very positive sign, and we also found juveniles of various sizes. Further, we have yet to recapture a single individual of the target species. So, collectively, these data suggest that the population at Bwindi is large and reproductively active. This is in apparent contrast to Kibale, where we found only a single individual during 7 nights (granted, this was a female with eggs) and, perhaps, the Bwindi populations are more similar to those at Rwenzori. Rwenzori and Bwindi share many species of animals and plants, a relatively similar elevation profile, and a likely recent forest connection, all of which may be reasons why the populations resemble each other more so than to those at Kibale, despite Kibale being geographically very close to the Rwenzoris. The chameleon species composition also differs at all three sites, with Bwindi and Rwenzori sharing more species in common with each other than either of them to Kibale. I hope that once the numbers are crunched for these data collected over the last 6-weeks, I will be able to begin to tease apart the comparative population ecology of chameleons at these three sites.

Despite this being my 3rd visit to Bwindi, I have never seen a Mountain Gorilla. I have heard one though: A large silverback was audibly thumping its chest several times while I was on a night trek for frogs in 2015, apparently letting me know that I was encroaching into its territory and if I got closer it wouldn’t be good. So, Jaclyn, Wilber and I opted for gorilla trekking yesterday morning. A once in a lifetime experience that was made better by getting a chance to visit the largest of the gorilla groups at Ruhija, 19 gorillas in all and three silverbacks in this group. Gorillas move freely through the forest, yet we do not, so to find them we had to create new trails through steep, slippery, and treacherous terrain. This time I got to fully appreciate the “impenetrableness” of Bwindi’s forest. We reached the gorilla group after an hour and a half of trailblazing and many samplings of the soil temperature (aka, falling on our butts). It was humbling to sit amongst the gorilla group while they causally ate and moved amongst us. A truly incomparable experience. We followed them for nearly an hour, which was not near enough time, and when we were departing, the 3rd ranking silverback gave us a (terrifying) threat charge with raised arms and vocalizations. I can only imagine a charge from the top ranking male! The gorillas are the conservation priority at Bwindi, and rightfully so, and my hope is that our chameleon surveys will provide additional support for conserving not only the large gregarious mammals in Uganda, but also our small scaly friends.

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Incredible photos, especially of the chameleon in the close up of the hand. What camera/lense are you using? Love the posts - can't wait until your next expedition!

Karma, karma, karma chameleon: Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve

After 7 nights of searching for chameleons in Kibale National Park, we found 40+ individuals of three species. The chameleon we found most frequently is actually very rare in Uganda, the Ituri Forest Chameleon, as its only known from a single picture in Kibale. We found nearly 6 individuals per survey, suggesting that this species is elusive but not undetectable and that the population is much larger than previously thought. See the picture of a spectacular individual of this rare species. We also found four Pygmy Chameleons, which are no larger than a grown man's thumb. As for our target species, Tolley's Forest Chameleon, we found just a single female on the first night. She was full of eggs, a good sign that they are reproducing, but it seems that the population is likely small, particularly at the locations we surveyed. The final tally of chameleons from our surveys at Rwenzori Mountains National Park (300+ individuals of 5 species) dwarfs the numbers we got a Kibale National Park (40+ individuals of 3 species). I suspect the lower density of chameleons at Kibale may be related to lower elevation of the forests in combination with the higher density and diversity of predators--monkeys, hornbills, and snakes were far more common at Kibale relative to Rwenzori. For example, we found 8 individuals of the Bush Viper during our 7 nights and several other snake species. Check out the spectacular Large-eyed Green Tree Snake picture below. Red Colobus and Black-and-White Colobus Monkeys, Chimpanzees, Blue Monkeys, Grey-cheeked Mangabeys and Baboons were also quite common in our Kibale survey area. Check out the intimate Baboon family moment I captured in a photograph.

We finished our surveys at Kibale on the 19th and headed to Fort Portal to rest for a night. Joseph Isingoma, who worked tirelessly and side-by-side with me over the last 2-weeks had to return to his job, so now it was down to just me and Bob Katabazi. On the 21st, we headed back to the bush. One night in town was more than enough for me. This time we set our sights on the southern shore of Lake Albert, a place called Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve. The region is largely woodland-savanna with a swamp, gallery forests, and a large escarpment. It is a much drier region than the rainforests that we had been in, especially because it is now entering the rainy season, several of our night surveys were during downpours. Lake Albert is one of East Africa's great lakes and is surrounded by escarpments on both the Ugandan and Congolese sides. It really feels like an ocean when you are standing on Albert's shore. The reserve is home to one of the most prehistoric-looking birds in the world, the Shoebill Stork, which we were hoping to catch a glimpse of. We had also heard reports that the Dwarf Crocodile has been sighted in the Wasa River that runs directly through the reserve, so we decided to see it for ourselves. Several night surveys were very productive in this arid region, we found Burrowing Frogs, Walking Frogs, a Puff Adder, and several more interesting species, including the Dwarf Crocodile (we saw 3 of them). During one of the days, we took a boat ride to the reedy swamp vegetation, a favorite hangout for the Shoebill. The boat ride was very scenic, with many people fishing in the shallow areas, we even bought some fish from a fisherman on the open water. After 3 or so hours, we finally spotted our prize, the Shoebill. It is truly an amazing bird and one that always seems to have a scowl.

We are in Kampala now, where I will recover, re-organize, and prepare for the final leg of the trip. I am very excited that Jaclyn Adams will be joining the chameleon team on the 27th. We are next planning to strike Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda to continue our search for Tolley's Forest Chameleon. Bwindi is home to several chameleon species that share the forest with the Critically Endangered Mountain Gorilla. We have had luck here in the past and are hoping for that good luck again.

In the Toro-Semliki Game Reserve, we stayed near Ntoroko, a landing site that turned out to be a major port for the movement of people and goods to and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This didn't seem so bad at first but little did I know, DR Congo is currently experiencing an outbreak of Ebola, with some predicting that it will come into western Uganda. A recent WHO article indicated that it was detected at Tchomia, a fishing village on the Congolese side of Lake Albert, slightly more than 50 km straight line distance from where we stayed. While we were given many assurances that no one in Ntoroko had it and it hasn't come across from Congo (yet), we were on very high alert. On our last day in the area, we were shown a large, white "medical tent" near where the boats were coming and going to Congo at Ntoroko, supposedly to detect/defend against Ebola. So, I took a quick look inside (now I wish I hadn't), which revealed that it was simply a hand-washing station and nothing else. Safe to say that if Ebola comes through this landing site, it is likely not going to be slowed by much, unless serious reinforcements come soon. We are now safe in Kampala and will not be returning to this area, but the Ebola situation in Congo is ongoing and I am watching the developments very closely.

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From the mountains to the forest: Kibale National Park

After 7 very long nights of tireless trekking up and down the Rwenzoris, we ended up encountering over 200 chameleons, marking 125 or so, and recapturing around 40, many several times. These data are still being entered, so the analysis is rough. Regardless, these kinds of numbers are staggering. Further, we found nearly 10 individuals of our target species, Tolley's Forest Chameleon. This is a huge boost compared to the 2 individuals found during searches in 2014, 2015, and 2016 at this same location. Safe to say, we are off to a great start!

During one night's search at Rwenzori, I stepped into the forest to begin recording data for a new chameleon and I realized that I was standing in a big depression in the ground and that the forest was destroyed around me. I was soon told that we have been working in the "Elephant Zone", where forest elephants, the more aggressive cousin to the savanna elephant, roam freely. This was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. Elephants are huge and could easily get scared and trample us at night while we are focused on spotlighting chameleons. The rangers carry a fully loaded AK-47, which they will shoot in the air in an attempt to scare off any charging beast. Everyone around me seemed calm, so I relaxed a bit, thinking that no way this can happen to me. Little did I know forest elephants are even more common at Kibale National Park, which was our next chameleon destination.

Near the end of our time at Rwenzori, I came face to face with a snake I have longed to see alive in the wild, a forest cobra. I was conducting a search during the day for chameleons in a nearby village, when next to the river, among the tall reeds, we spotted a black, shiny figure near the top, nearly 15 ft up. Turned out to be a cobra, a small, but no less menacing species that has eluded me on previous trips. There was no way I was going to miss this chance. We quickly cut down the nearest long stalk of a reed and fashioned one end into a makeshift fork, with a split down the middle, to use as a pair of tongs to catch the serpent. The pole was long and the snake was perched high, so I had to stretch as far as I could to get the snake's body caught between the two sides of our reed tongs. Once I had the snake semi-secured, I quickly turned to place it on the ground, then it attempted to escape. It darted into the grass, so I used my boot to stop it in its tracks. We then convinced it, with great difficulty, to go inside an old water bottle and then closed the lid. Finally, my first cobra!

We arrived at Kibale on the 13th and immediately began our surveys. So far, we have four surveys in the bag, with three to go. On our first survey, we realized this was going to be very different than our time at Rwenzori. We had found just 7 chameleons in 6 hrs of searching, where we had found 1 every 10 mins at Rwenzori. The chameleon species here are less numerous than there and the elevation is a bit lower, around 1500 m compared to 1700-2100 m. Nevertheless, we managed to find a single female Tolley's Forest Chameleon, which was full of eggs, a very good sign. With three more survey nights, I am hoping that we can find more.

Kibale is home to the most monkey species in Uganda, including one of, if not the, largest group of chimpanzees in East Africa. They are also some of the the best studied. The place is also home to green bush vipers, of which we have found 7 in just 4 nights! A record for me. These vipers are quite small (6 in - 2 ft) but they are gorgeous, at least to a person that can see beauty in a venomous snake. There are also forest elephants, and lots of them. On our second night, while also moving through another ominously titled "Elephant Zone" at night, we heard what sounded like very loud thunder. Turned out to be elephants literally crushing and snapping trees in the forest. So we paused, then we heard it again, but even closer this time. Our ranger cocked his rifle and stepped to the edge of the forest. We slowly peered around the next trail with our flashlights and then saw what looked like the entire forest moving. It was a huge bull elephant smashing through large trees as if moving through a forest of toothpicks. Luckily for us, it went the other way, but we were constantly reminded of their presence with distant sounds of trees snapping under their feet throughout the night.

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Mountains of the Moon: Blue Snakes and Chameleon Mani-Pedis

After several long days of travel, we reached Rwenzori Mountains National Park in far western Uganda on the 4th October. This region straddles the equator and has one of the highest peaks in all of Africa with glaciers at the top reaching over 5,100 m elevation. It also has 7 chameleon species, including Tolley's Forest Chameleon, for which we found a single female in 2014 and one male in 2016.

Our plan is to hike from the foothills up to 2,200 meters every evening for 7 total nights to search for chameleons as we descend down to camp. Chameleons are most easily spotted at night with flashlights while they sleep in the trees and on bushes. We are marking the chameleons in a unique way--we paint their nails with fingernail polish! So far, we have given mani-pedis to over 75 chameleons in just 4-nights and we have seen over 120 chameleons during that time! We have also seen 5 individuals of our target species, Tolley's Forest Chameleon, and have marked three of them, one of which we found again the next night.

While hiking down around midnight after some chameleon surveys, we found a beautiful Gunther's tree snake with a sky blue belly. We have also seen numerous bush babies, several species of monkey, and a few days ago I saw an otter when I was near Mityana, a first for me in Uganda.

All is going great at the Mountains of the Moon. We have four more nights of surveys here and likely many more chameleon surprises to come!

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The 11th hour: Final preparations

My flight leaves tomorrow evening at 5:50 PM from Chicago heading to Brussels, then from Brussels to Kigali, and finally from Kigali to Entebbe. I will be picked up from the airport by Bob Katabazi at 11:00 PM and we will drive the 40 miles or so to his place in Kampala. Then, I will sleep for a few days. At least, that is how we planned it.

But that is tomorrow. Today I am packing, all day. Getting ready for an African expedition is like preparing to study for a test that hasn't been written yet. It is hard to know exactly what you will need in the bush or what will break, so I take two, of just about everything. Getting all that into a few crates with a 50 lb limit is an adventure. Check out the picture below for a sense of what my office floor looks like at this very moment. Of course, there are your field essentials, your absolutely must-haves while exploring: baby wipes (for a quick shower and just about everything else); books (expeditions are long periods of waiting followed by intense activity); flashlights (chameleons are best found at night); permethrin treated clothes; anti-malarial pills (taken daily!); camera (I take many, many pictures); and snacks (chocolate candies, beef jerky, and instant coffee).

I have just heard from all members of the chameleon team and they are all very excited to begin our search for Tolley's Forest Chameleon. We have high hopes of finding our target species. We also anticipate running into some of Uganda's awesome snakes, like the Bush Viper we spotted 5 m up a tree in 2016! Check out the picture below.

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Expedition Background

In 2017, I described a new species of chameleon from Uganda, known as Tolley's Forest Chameleon. This chameleon species is essentially unknown from an ecological standpoint, as only a few individuals have ever been studied. This expedition is to find and study this new species so that we can protect it before its too late. On 29 September 2018, I will travel to Uganda to begin a nearly 6-week long journey to find this rare chameleon species. During this expedition, I will also search for other chameleon and reptile species, as well as amphibians.

The Great Chameleon Search really began in 2014 on my first expedition to Africa, where we searched for chameleons in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for nearly 2 months. It has been an adventure that has taken me to some of the most remote locations in Central Africa. Since that first trip, I have dedicated my research to understand the diversity, distribution, and ecology of chameleons. This passion for chameleons has produced some exciting new results. We have discovered that some widespread species in the Albertine Rift highlands are in fact several species, many of which are completely new to science. Chameleons are lauded as jewels of the forest and they play critical roles in the various environments they inhabit, yet more than 30% of them are threatened with extinction. Habitat loss, climate change, and illegal harvesting have put the world's chameleon species at risk. I am optimistic that we can collect the information needed to protect these rare chameleons before they are gone forever.

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Hey Danny,
Excited to follow along here!

I fell in love with chameleons after spotting one in Tanzania while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro a few years ago. It's great to see them getting the recognition they deserve! Danny, you are doing some really special work!

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