The panther chameleon of Madagascar is famous for its size. It can grow to be 17-20 inches long. It's also famous for its Technicolor skin, which can range from vibrant oranges and reds to cool blues and greens and many combinations of colors, depending upon its habitat.

But what makes the panther chameleon stand out now is that researchers have discovered it isn't just one species, but 11 different species of chameleon!

panther chameleon

Panther chameleons have slight variations in color patterns that can now be used to distinguish different species from one another. (Photo: Cathy Keifer/Shutterstock)

Researchers from University of Geneva looked at blood samples from 324 panther chameleons from across the range of the species. They analyzed the DNA and found that what was thought to be different populations are actually different species.

The researchers then created a classification key for the 11 different species based on color and pattern variations, allowing them to identify the different species using just the naked eye rather than DNA analysis.

Nature World News points out an important aspect of this new finding: "In addition, this new study shows that in order to protect the new chameleon species, they need individual conservation management, given that they each constitute a different part of the biodiversity as a whole. The visual classification key created by the researchers could even assist local biologists and trade managers to avoid local population over-harvesting."

Panther chameleons were up to this point thought to have varying primary colors and color patterns depending on their location, but now these "locales" may now need to be considered distinct species. 

panther chameleon

Knowing that there are distinct species, all of which need protection, gives conservationists an edge in setting aside preserves and other strategies for protecting the species. (Photo: taboga/Shutterstock)

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.