10 Colorful Facts About Chameleons
You probably know that these lizards can change their skin color, but they’ve got plenty of other special tricks as well. In fact, they might be the world’s most talented reptiles. Chameleons can shoot out their tongues at alarming speeds, use their tails as extra limbs, and even see in two different directions at once. Impressive, no?
1. THEIR FEET WORK LIKE SALAD TONGS.
Most lizards have fairly unremarkable feet. In the majority of species, they're comprised of four to five toes that can move independently of each other—just as ours do. But evolution has taken chameleon limbs in a very different direction. A chameleon’s foot consists of two fleshy pads that oppose each other. One pad contains three digits that are fused together while the other has two fused digits.
Up in the tree canopies where they live, these feet come in handy. Like a set of pincers, the opposing pads on each foot firmly clamp down onto vines and branches. Also, whereas most lizards have sprawling limbs, chameleons usually hold their legs almost directly underneath their bodies. This gives them an athletic gait for a modern reptile—walking this way keeps the center of gravity directly above the feet, which helps the animals stay balanced.
2. ALMOST HALF OF ALL KNOWN SPECIES LIVE IN MADAGASCAR.
Currently, there are around 200 different chameleon species, 44 percent of which can be found on Madagascar—leading some experts to wonder if the whole chameleon family originally evolved there (although a modern analysis deemed mainland Africa a more likely origin point). Elsewhere in the world, some members of this incredible group occur naturally in India, Asia minor, southern Europe, and mainland Africa.
3. CHAMELEONS VARY WILDLY IN TERMS OF SIZE.
In 2012, researchers discovered a new species of chameleon that—as of this writing—is the smallest on record. Known as Brookesia micra, the diminutive animal dwells on Nosy Hara, an islet off the coast of Madagascar. The diurnal lizard’s maximum adult length is only an inch, and juveniles can fit on the head of a match. (Sure, it's a cliche, but ... really. They can.) Meanwhile, mainland Madagascar is home to the two largest chameleons on record: the Oustalet’s chameleon and the Parson’s chameleon, each of which can grow up to 27 inches.
4. THEY MAINLY CHANGE COLOR IN ORDER TO COMMUNICATE OR REGULATE BODY TEMPERATURE.
Contrary to popular belief, when a chameleon changes its skin color, the animal usually isn’t trying to camouflage itself by blending into the environment. More often, this remarkable ability is used as a way of controlling its body temperature. By lightening their skin, chameleons can cool themselves down, since lighter colors are better at reflecting the sun’s rays. On the other hand, adopting a dark complexion is a good way to warm up when it gets chilly outside.
Another primary function of color change is communication: Altering skin tone can let potential mates or rivals know what’s on your mind. For example, a female common chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) displays bright yellow spots when she’s ready to mate. Afterwards, she’ll darken her skin tone and show off blue and yellow spots to inform nearby males to stay away. (Angry hisses also help get the point across.)
Males, too, wear their emotions on their skin. When two bull graceful chameleons (Chamaeleo gracilis) cross paths, their skins become paler and more heavily spotted. Faced with the same situation, a pair of male warty chameleons (Furcifer verrucosus) will turn bright blue and green—but only on the lower half of their bodies.
When such displays aren’t enough, many males won’t shy away from physical confrontation. Amazingly, it looks like variations in skin color might predict the outcome of these squabbles before they happen. In 2013, Russell Ligon and Kevin McGraw of Arizona State University monitored 45 encounters between captive veiled chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus—pictured above). Before engaging with each other, males of this species show off the vibrant stripes on their sides. Both lizards intentionally brighten these up as a way to demonstrate their health while also making themselves look bigger. Ligon and McGraw discovered that—in most cases—any resulting fight was won by whichever combatant had brighter and more rapidly-changing stripes.
5. SKIN CRYSTALS ENABLE THEM TO CHANGE COLOR AT WILL.
Until recently, scientists thought that the reptiles changed color by manipulating the pigments inside their skin cells. But it's much more complicated. In 2015, scientists at the University of Geneva took a close look at the skin of the male panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) and discovered two layers of specialized cells lying under the creature’s hide that were loaded with tiny nanocrystals—the key to a chameleon’s color-changing prowess.
The name of the game is reflection. When a male panther chameleon is relaxed, the cells containing its crystals are held closely together. In this position, they reflect blue light, which—when filtered through yellow skin pigments—makes the animal look green. Somehow, chameleons can expand and reduce the distance between those nanocrystals. By spreading them farther apart, the reptiles cause their crystals to reflect yellow or red light. The skin’s apparent color then changes accordingly.
6. UNLIKE MANY LIZARDS, CHAMELEONS CAN’T REGROW THEIR TAILS.
Most chameleons have long, grasping tails that basically function like a fifth limb. In the majority of species, it can support the animal’s entire bodyweight, allowing a chameleon to move between branches more easily. One thing that the appendage cannot do, however, is automatically break off when a predator grabs it, as the tails of anoles, leopard geckos, and many other lizards do—if a chameleon’s tail is severed, it won’t grow a replacement.
7. THEIR EYES CAN SWIVEL AROUND IN TWO DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS SIMULTANEOUSLY.
Each eye has the incredible range of motion of 90 degrees vertically and 180 degrees horizontally. And that’s not all: The peepers can also move in opposite directions—so while one eye is looking upwards and to the left, the other might simultaneously wander downwards and to the right. This allows a chameleon to scan most of the surrounding area for food without even moving its head. If one wandering eye should spy a tasty insect, the other one will move over and fixate on the target as well, giving the lizard some depth perception.
8. SMALLER CHAMELEONS HAVE FASTER TONGUES.
After a chameleon gets both eyes locked onto its prey, a high-speed weapon is deployed: the reptile’s ultra-sticky tongue, which can be 2.5 times as long as its body and can be deployed and reeled back in in less than a second.
Recently, biologist Christopher Anderson used a high-speed camera to record 55 different chameleons—representing 20 species—as they snapped up prey. Anderson noted that the speed and relative force of a chameleon’s tongue seems to be inversely proportional to the creature’s overall size. In other words, it looks like smaller species can fire their tongues more rapidly and more powerfully than their bigger cousins do. The tiniest species that Anderson examined was Rhampholeon spinosus, which fired off its tongue at 8500 feet per second. Meanwhile, the biggest lizard of the bunch—a 2-foot-long Oustalet’s chameleon—had a peak tongue acceleration rate that was 18 percent slower.
9. CHAMELEON SPIT IS UNBELIEVABLY STICKY.
How does a chameleon’s tongue hold onto the insects and small vertebrates it touches? With spit that's 400 times more viscous than that of a human being. This ultra-sticky substance coats the tongue, giving the lizards an edge that helps them pull even heavy victims into their jaws.
10. THEY’VE GOT A DISTINCTIVE “JERKY WALK.”
These lizards are known to sway back and forth—sometimes erratically—while walking. If there’s a method to this madness, scientists have yet to identify it. Many speculate that the weird behavior helps chameleons imitate swaying tree leaves, thus further camouflaging themselves. However, so far, no one’s been able to prove this hypothesis.