10 Facts About Chameleons

Portrait of a chameleon

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Among the most fascinating, and unnerving, animals on earth, chameleons are endowed with so many unique adaptations--independently rotating eyes, shooting tongues, prehensile tails and (last but not least) the ability to change their color--that they seem to have been dropped out of the sky from another planet. Discover 10 essential facts about chameleons, ranging from the origins of their name to their ability to see ultraviolet light.

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There Are Over 200 Chameleon Species

A Jackson's chameleon handled by a zoo keeper

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Classified as "old world" lizards—because they're only indigenous to Africa and Eurasia—chameleons consist of a dozen named genera and over 200 individual species. Broadly speaking, these reptiles are characterized by their small sizes, quadrupedal postures, extrudable tongues, independently rotating eyes, and (in most species) prehensile tails and the ability to change color in order to signal others of their kind and blend in with their surroundings. Most chameleons are insectivores, but a few larger varieties supplement their diets with small lizards and birds.

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Nearly Half of All Chameleons Live in Madagascar

one-month-old Veiled Chameleon

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The island of Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa, is known for its diversity of lemurs (a tree-dwelling family of primates) and chameleons. Three chameleon genera (Brookesia, Calumma and Furcifer) are exclusive to Madagascar, with species ranging from the caterpillar-sized pygmy leaf chameleon to the giant (nearly two-pound) Parson's chameleon, and from the brightly colored panther chameleon to the seriously endangered Tarzan chameleon (named not after the Tarzan of storybooks, but the nearby village of Tarzanville).

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Most Chameleons Can Change Their Color

Chameleon on Wall

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While chameleons aren't quite as adept at camouflage as they're depicted in cartoons—no, a chameleon can't instantly "disappear" by mimicking a polka-dot dress—these reptiles are still very talented. Most chameleons can change their color, and pattern, by manipulating the pigments and crystals of guanine (a type of amino acid) embedded in their skin. This trick comes in handy for hiding from predators (or curious humans), but the fact is that most chameleons change color to signal to other chameleons—for example, bright-colored chameleons are dominant in male-on-male contests, while more muted colors indicate defeat and submission.

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The Eyes of Chameleons Move Independently


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For many people, the most disquieting thing about chameleons is these reptile's eyes, which can move independently in their sockets and thus provide a near-360-degree scope of vision. (In case you're wondering how a chameleon can judge the distance of prey without binocular vision, the fact is that each of this lizard's eyes has excellent depth perception, and can zero in on tasty insects from as far as 10 or 20 feet away!) Somewhat compensating for its excellent sense of sight, though, chameleons have relatively primitive ears, and can only hear sounds in an extremely restricted range of frequencies.

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Chameleons Have Long, Sticky Tongues

Chamaeleonidae at the Natural history museum of Geneva

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The independently swerving eyes of a chameleon wouldn't do much good if this reptile couldn't close the deal on prey. For this reason, all chameleons are equipped with long, sticky tongues—often two or three times the length of their bodies—which they can forcefully eject out of their mouths. (Chameleons have two unique muscles that accomplish this task: the accelerator muscle, which ejects the tongue at high speed, and the hypoglossus, which snaps the tongue back with the prey attached on the end.) Amazingly, a chameleon can eject its tongue at full force even in low temperatures that would make other reptiles extremely sluggish.

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The Feet of Chameleons Are Extremely Specialized

Parson's Chameleon

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Perhaps because of the extreme recoil caused by its ejecting tongue, chameleons need a way to stay firmly attached to the branches of trees—and nature has come up with a solution in this lizard's "zygodactylous" feet. What this means is that the feet of chameleons have two outer and three inner toes (or two inner and three outer toes, depending if we're talking about the front or back feet), and each toe is equipped with a sharp nail that can dig into the bark of trees. Other animals—including perching birds and sloths--have also evolved this general strategy, but the five-toed anatomy of chameleons is unique.

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Most Chameleons Have Prehensile Tails

A chameleon's tail curls as it sits on a tree branch

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As if their zygodactylous feet weren't enough, most chameleons (with the exception of the very smallest species) also have prehensile tails, which they can wrap around tree branches. These tails endow chameleons with greater flexibility when ascending or climbing down from trees, and, like their feet, they brace this lizard from the recoil of its explosive tongue. Here are two more interesting facts about chameleon tails: when a chameleon is resting, its tail is curled up into a tight ball, and a chameleon tail can't be regenerated if it's cut off (unlike the case with some other lizards, which can shed and grow their tails numerous times throughout their lifetimes).

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Chameleons Can See Ultraviolet Light

Chameleon's eye

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One of the most mysterious things about chameleons is their ability to see light in the ultraviolet spectrum (ultraviolet radiation has more energy than the "visible" light detected by humans, and can be dangerous in large doses). Presumably, this ultraviolet sense evolved to allow chameleons to better target their prey; it may also have something to do with the fact that chameleons become more active, social and interesting in breeding when exposed to ultraviolet light, possibly because UV light stimulates the pineal glands in these reptile's tiny brains.

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The Oldest Identified Chameleon Lived 60 Million Years Ago

Male of Long-nosed Chameleon at Vohimana reserve, Madagascar Date

Frank Vassen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

As far as paleontologists can tell, the first chameleons evolved shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago: the earliest identified species, Anqingosaurus brevicephalus, lived in middle Paleocene Asia. However, there is some indirect evidence that chameleons were extant 100 million years ago, during the middle Cretaceous period, and may have originated in Africa (which would explain their profusion in modern-day Madagascar). Most tellingly, and logically, chameleons must have shared a last common ancestor with closely related iguanas and "dragon lizards," and this "concestor" likely lived toward the end of the Mesozoic Era.

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The Word Chameleon Means "Ground Lion"

A Namaqua chameleon in the Namib desert

Yathin S Krishnappa/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Chameleons, like most animals, have been around a lot longer than humans have, which explains why we find references to this reptile in the oldest available written sources. The Akkadians—an ancient culture that dominated modern-day Iraq over 4,000 years ago—called this lizard "nes qaqqari," literally "lion of the ground," and this usage was picked up unaltered by subsequent civilizations over the ensuing centuries: first the Greek "khamaileon," then the Latin "chamaeleon," and finally the modern English "chameleon," meaning "ground lion."