Photo: Glaw et al, Scientific Reports 2021

In the rainforests of Northern Madagascar, researchers may have found the smallest lizard in the world: Brookesia nana. From the tip of its snout to the base of its tail, the males are 13.5 millimeters in length. The females are substantially bigger, weighing in at 19.2 millimeters. But these descriptions, as well as the pictures shown here, fail to convey how small this creature really is. Look at your own thumb now, imagine it sitting on the tip of your finger as if on a table, imagine its feet hanging onto your own fingernail. It is a chameleon, and you could flick it clear across the room. You could pick it up with the end of a matchstick and hold it in a thimble. Over hundreds of thousands of years, evolution has taken the chameleon as we know it and given us this. Of course, its skull and its nervous system and its very morphological structure have been bent, molded, and modified in the process, but what results is Brookesia nana — the smallest known reptile in our universe.

How are we to make sense of this animal? A functioning brain, a beating heart, an entire lizard packed into 13.5 millimeters. It is practically a bug. Since the discovery of the Brookesia genus, researchers have been scouring the Madagascar islands looking for new chameleon species. The search for Brookesia nana took a team of researchers and Madagascar natives several weeks, but the discovery of this new species apparently wasn’t altogether unexpected. In an online thread, Dr. Mark D. Scherz explains that species from the Brookesia genus are microendemic, which means they are restricted to and built for incredibly specific environmental conditions. This means that every time researchers visit a new area in Madagascar they will likely discover a new species. The biology and evolution of Brookesia nana, and millions of others like it, have devoted themselves so completely to their environment that they have become a different kind of animal altogether. They have chosen this patch of rainforest, on this patch of island, on this patch of Earth, and they have stuck to it. They have taken a stand. If their share of rainforest was wiped out (like much of our rainforests already have) Brookesia nana could not adapt. They would perish. That is how specific this creature is.

Photo: Glaw et al, Scientific Reports 2021

Is Brookesia nana some higher order spelled out to the letter? Or is it an absurd universe staring us in the face? That such a creature could even exist is astounding. It is either the most profound feat of biological engineering I have ever seen, or it is a complete accident. Whatever it is, it is certainly a piece of conclusive evidence — either for the complete and perfect design of this world, or for the chaos and absurdity of it. We have grown comfortable in our world, even shown authority over it, so it is both unsettling and exhilarating to find something like Brookesia nana in the wild, a hint at how little we really know about this planet, this world, this life. To take the genetic blueprint of the chameleon, to take its very biology and transform it into this — under what principles could such a thing be allowed? What natural order has been decreed (and who or what has decreed it) such that a lizard can become smaller than the very insects it catches by the tip of its tongue? And what to make of the fact that we owe our very existence to those principles? It is design or it is madness. Nothing about it makes sense, and yet here it is before us — Brookesia nana, a living, breathing 13.5 millimeter chameleon.

I have neglected to mention it, but one of the reasons this lizard has gathered so much attention is that its penis is nearly as large as its leg. The reason its penis is nearly as large as its leg, the researchers write in their report, is “to enable a better mechanical fit with female genitals during copulation.”

It is design or it is madness.

Photo: Glaw et al, Scientific Reports 2021

The discovery of Brookesia nana is a pretext for me to ask the same questions asked of us everywhere all the time. The origin of species, the orbits of planets, the birth and death of a trillion trillion galaxies, all of them perfectly aligned and bending to what? To nothing, to someone’s will? And where do we fit into it all? Since man has been able to think, we have asked ourselves these questions — but suppose there’s no answer. Who said there would be one? I consider myself a scientist, and I am well aware of its limits in coming up with satisfying answers. I am also a human, so I am aware of my limits there as well. They are questions that cannot really be answered, but the discovery of the living, breathing 13.5 millimeter Brookesia nana makes me ask all the same.

Follow me on twitter @bignateisme.

Just tryna keep cog neuro 💯, PhD student at University of Oregon

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