Curious Chameleons

If you heard about a creature with a long, sticky tongue that can effortlessly change color in an instant and look in two directions at the same time, you might think you’re reading science fiction.

However, these are actual traits of the amazing chameleon, a colorful reptile that makes its home in trees and bushes. 

Where Do They Live? 

Most chameleons are native to Africa, though a few are also found in the Middle East, India and Europe. Over two-thirds of chameleon species are native to Madagascar, the island nation off the coast of the African continent. There are over 150 species of chameleon and some have adapted to living in the desert, while others thrive in rain forests. Although chameleons have the ability to change their coloration, their natural body color also acts as a form of camouflage to help the reptiles blend in with their surroundings. That’s why desert chameleons are typically brown, while those found in the rain forest are usually green.  

Color-Changing Chameleons 

There are many popular misconceptions about how and why chameleons change color. They don’t automatically change to match any background they land on, and they can’t change to any color or pattern, although some chameleons do have pretty amazing palettes available.

Chameleons have several layers of skin containing different pigments. They change color by manipulating the size and shape of the cells in each skin layer to mix the pigments together in different ways. Each chameleon species has a range of shades and patterns it’s able to display. Often, chameleons change color as a way to help regulate their body temperature. Darker colors absorb more heat, so a chameleon might darken its scales to warm up. Conversely, a chameleon might switch to a lighter hue in order to cool down. Typically solitary animals, chameleons also change color as a form of communication and use different shades to attract mates or warn off rivals and enemies.  

Weird and Wonderful 

Color-changing isn’t the chameleon’s only superpower. These carnivorous reptiles also have incredibly long, sticky tongues that they use to catch a variety of insects including locusts, mantids, grasshoppers and crickets. Chameleons don’t move very fast, so they rely on their lightning-quick tongues that can shoot out at up to 13 miles per hour. The end of the tongue is muscular and adheres to an insect like a suction cup as it hits. Chameleons can range in size from less than an inch to as big as a pet cat, but whatever their size, their tongues are often longer than their bodies. Check out this amazing video to see a chameleon’s acrobatic tongue in action.

The chameleon’s unusual eyes are another distinctive feature. These odd, cone-shaped orbs can move in two directions at once, giving the reptiles a somewhat-unsettling double gaze. However, this is a big advantage in the wild, since it provides a panoramic view of their surroundings.

Like other reptiles, most chameleons lay eggs. Female chameleons dig a hole in the ground and lay their eggs inside — the number varies based on the species. When they hatch, the babies already look like miniature adults and can hunt and fend for themselves. Within a year, many species have already reached maturity. 

Chameleons in Pop Culture

Thanks to their color-changing abilities that seem almost magical and uniquely charming appearance, chameleons are often found in popular culture. One of the most high-profile examples is the film Rango, which stars Johnny Depp as an animated chameleon. Other examples include Espio the chameleon from the Sonic the Hedgehog video games and Rapunzel’s pet chameleon Pascal in the movie Tangled.

With their shade-shifting powers and eerie eyes, it’s easy to see why chameleons are cool. Check out these interesting animals at your local zoo in the reptile area.