Everybody knows chameleons can change color but do you really know why they do it? Do you know how fast they can shoot their tongue? Find the answers to these questions and more in this list of 50 cool chameleon facts.
1. Chameleons live in warm habitats
Chameleons inhabit warm habitats mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and the island of Madagascar. They are also found in North Africa, Southern Europe, parts of the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka. Veiled Chameleons are considered an invasive species in Hawaii largely due to escaped pets.
In these areas, chameleons live in rain forests and deserts, low lying areas of mountains and some deserts.
2. Madagascar is their stronghold
Over half of all known species of chameleon live on the island of Madagasgar. Around 60 species are only found on the island and nowhere else in the world. Despite this, there is no evidence to suggest that chameleons actually originated on the island. Instead, it is believed they were much more widespread in China and Central Europe.
3. Chameleons feature in Madagascan folklore
Some Madagascan people fear chameleons as their mysterious features look somewhat otherworldly. A common Malagasy proverb is ‘Ataovy dian-tana. Jerena ny aloha. Todihana ny afara.’ Which means ‘Behave like the chameleon. Look forward and observe behind.’ They also believe treading on a Brookesia chameleon brings a person bad luck.
4. The word chameleon means ground lion
Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given most chameleons live in the trees and they don’t act much like lions! But the word chameleon is derived from ancient Greek.
Khamai is ancient Greek meaning on the ground and leon meaning lion, like the zodiac sign leo. This, like a lot of words, evolved into latin chamaelon which evolved into the word we use today.
It is thought that as many chameleons have some sort of casque or crest on their heads it resembles the mane of a lion, hence the name ground lion. Perhaps the main species living in ancient Greece were ground-dwelling desert species?
5. Chameleons evolved 65 million years ago
Paleontologists believe chameleons first evolved around 65 million years ago not long after the dinosaurs went extinct. Let’s face it you can see some resemblance cant’ you? Just look at a Jackson’s chameleon alongside a Triceratops and you’ll see something. They share more in common with iguanas and bearded dragons than dinosaurs though and are thought to have originated in Africa.
6. The smallest chameleon is the size of a match stick head
Speaking of tiny chameleons the smallest chameleon is tiny, really tiny! It can sit on top of a match and not cover it. It is called the Brookesia Micra, it lives among the leaf litter of Madagascar and has all the exact same anatomical details of the largest chameleon.
7. The largest chameleon is the size of a small domestic cat
It’s extraordinary to think that the Brookesia Micra has the same anatomy of enormous Parsons chameleon. These hefty chameleons can weigh up to two pounds and can grow up to 30 inches in length. Like it’s tiny cousin it too is found in Madagascar but high up in the trees.
8. The shortest living chameleon has a lifespan of 5 months
The Labords chameleon, again found in Madagascar, only lives for a short period of time. It does, in fact, have the shortest lifespan of all land vertebrates. They grow extremely rapidly, reach sexual maturity, breed and then die.
Strangely at one point in the year the entire population of Labords chameleons consists only of eggs waiting to hatch. When they hatch they have ferocious appetites in order to grow fast and have excellent ability to blend into the leaf litter, more so than other chameleons which is hardly surprising given their short lifespan.
9. The longest living chameleon has a life span of 12 years
Most chameleons live on average of around 5 or 6 years. The largest chameleon also has the accolade of being the longest living. I guess all that slow, lumbering movement the Parson chameleon does takes up little energy and leaves more time for relaxing.
10. Half of chameleon species are endangered
This equates to around 100 species of chameleon at time of writing. The reason why so many chameleons are endangered is that so many are range restricted, meaning they only exist in specific and small geographical areas like certain mountain and forest conditions.
This means they are greater exposed to outside pressures like climate change caused by global human activity. Couple that with the fact so many are concentrated in Madagascar where a large increase in agriculture and deforestation has changed the landscape dramatically, you can see why some species are at a greater risk of extinction.
11. They change color
This is probably the most defining characteristic of chameleons. Not only do they have beautiful coloration they are able to change colors but not for the reasons you might think. All sorts of myths surround a chameleon’s color-changing ability and their reasons why.
The main reason they change color is to reflect their mood. They don’t change color to blend into their surroundings.
12. Skin crystals enable chameleons to change color
Scientists recently discovered that instead of changing color by changing the pigment in their skin, chameleons actually change color using nano salt crystals in their skin cells to refract light.
They change color by moving the crystals closer together or further away from each other. The crystals refract light at different wave lengths which make them change from green, blue, yellow and so on. Amazing to think such an ability evolved naturally in chameleons.
13. Chameleons show bright colors when angry or trying to mate
This mainly applies to males. When angry, chameleons will change to extremely vibrant colors signalling their anger and their intention to fight the threat that’s facing them. They also show beautiful bright colors when sleeping.
14. Chameleons show dark colors when angry
Yes this is a contradiction to the previous fact because chameleons will also turn black when they are angry but this is more an indication of fear than anger although anger is probably being felt too.
When frightened a chameleon will turn black and glare at the threat very intently whilst waiting to find a moment to escape. Chameleons also turn black when they are cold.
15. Panther chameleons are the most colorful
Which chameleons are the most colorful is a very subjective opinion. The so aptly named carpet chameleon and short lived Labord’s are leading contenders but for my money the panther chameleon is the most colorful and displays the widest range of colors, from lush sky blue to deep rich red the panther chameleon has all the colors of the rainbow in its pallet.
16. Some chameleons can fine-tune their color changing
Scientists discovered the Smith’s Dwarf Chameleon can fine-tune its coloration to match the visual system of their main predators.
When presented with a realistic model of a predatory bird and snake they found this chameleon attempted to blend in more with its background when presented with the bird than the snake.
This is because the snake has poorer color vision than the bird and therefore the chameleon didn’t need to try as hard to camouflage. It’s one of the rarer examples of a chameleon changing color specifically for camouflage.
17. Chameleons are arboreal
This means chameleons are primarily found in trees and very rarely on the ground amongst the leaves.
This is less applicable to desert dweling species but they are just as adapted to climbing trees as those found in mountain or forest areas.
18. Chameleons have a prehensile tail
As chameleons are arboreal they need the bodily functions to cope with this. Their tails are prehensile in the same way a monkey’s tail is.
This means they are capable of using their tails to wrap around branches to hang from them and use them to support their climbing. In most cases a chameleon’s tail is nearly twice as long as its body.
19. They have feet like tongs
Or as a friend of mine said about my pet chameleon ‘I love his little mitten feet!.’ A sweet way of describing but you can’t grab much with mittens, you can with tongs though and this is precisely why chameleons have feet like this.
They use them to grab very tightly on to branches in order to get a good grip for climbing. They will grab your fingers if you ever hold one and anything else they can. Their feet along with their tail are what make them expert climbers.
20. They have really long tongues
The length of a chameleon’s tongue varies from species to species but they are generally around 1.5 to 2 times longer than a chameleon’s body from tip of nose to tip of tail. They keep their tongue coiled up like a loaded spring that shoots out in the same way when hunting for food.
21. Chameleon tongues grab their prey
There is a common idea that chameleons shoot their tongues out, it sticks to their pray and they draw it back into their mouth.
There is truth to that, chameleons do have some of the most stickiest saliva ever measured but it also has a mechanism on the end of its tongue that physically grasps the prey as well as sticking to it.
Did you ever see the movie Alien? It’s kinda like that!
22. Their spit is really, really sticky
As mentioned above it’s among the stickiest ever measured and is 1000 times stickier than human saliva.
I’ve had a chameleon strike its tongue at my hand before and I can vouch for it, their tongues are pretty sticky and, considering the difference in size between me and him I can see how an insect would have no chance of escape if hit by a chameleon’s tongue.
23. A chameleon’s tongue is faster than a high end sports car
They’re super fast! Scientists showed that if a chameleon’s tongue were a sports car it would go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1/100th of a second, faster than any other reptile.
24. Their tongues are 200 times the force of gravity
Not only are they the fastest in nature they also pack the strongest punch. The smaller chameleon species are among the fastest with a strength equivalent of 14000 watts per kilogram… No that’s not a typo! If you were a fly you near a tiny chameleon you just wouldn’t have any idea what hit you!
25. Chameleons have 360° vision
Another well known feature of a chameleon is its eyes that move independently of one another enabling it to see in front and behind at the same time.
This means chameleons can see all around them in 360° vision giving them the opportunity to keep one eye on any predators approaching and another eye to find the best possible escape route.
26. They can see an insect ten metres away
Think about that for a second. Ten meters might not seem that far but when you think about how tiny an insect is and that a chameleon will see it densely packed jungle it’s really amazing.
In fact, chameleons have the highest magnification of all known vertebrates which enables them to use their eyes like binoculars and home in on its target.
27. Chameleons can see in the ultraviolet spectrum
Most animals see fewer colors than us humans can but chameleons are one of the few exceptions to this.
Not only do they see more colors than you, have monocular vision and can see all around them at the same time they can also see in the ultraviolet spectrum.
As UV light highlights certain aspects of the environment this ability is thought to be helpful to chameleons to spot other chameleons encroaching on its territory and, again, to see predators long before they see the chameleon.
28. Chameleons are sexually dimorphic
This means that chameleons display different characteristics beyond their reproductive organs to indicate what sex they are. For example male veiled chameleons have larger casques than females, have spurs on the back of their feet and across many species, males are generally more colorful than females.
29. Chameleons lay eggs
Most chameleons are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs that hatch outside the female but some are ovoviviparous meaning the eggs hatch inside the female who then gives birth to the hatched chameleons. Oviparous chameleons can lay clutches of up to 200 eggs.
30. Female chameleons display unique colors to indicate they are pregnant
When chameleons are pregnant (gravid) with eggs they will show unique colors to indicate this in order to ward of other males trying to mate with them.
31. Chameleons are capable of independence from birth
Once a female chameleon has laid her eggs in a secluded spot she will go on her way and probably never see her children. Baby chameleons are independent from birth. They instinctively know how to climb, feed and drink without needing any input from their mother.
32. Chameleons don’t only eat insects
Apart from its color-changing ability, chameleons are known for their enduring image of catching small insects with their long, sticky tongue. Insects aren’t the only item on the menu though.
Chameleons can also eat a wide variety of plants and will particularly do so if their nutrition is a bit low. Larger species will also eat rodents and some have been known to catch small birds as prey. Only insects are recommended for captive chameleons though.
33. Chameleons can’t drink standing water
They can certainly recognize it but they will not drink from it. This is because in their natural environment they’re more used to seeing water form in dew droplets on leaves or seeing it drip down from leaves after rain fall. They drink water by licking these droplets or letting water drop into their mouth that runs down ridges on their heads when it rains.
34. Chameleons can’t swim
Actually the short horned chameleon can swim a bit and has been known to feed when partially submerged under water but the vast majority of species can’t. They can float but not actually swim in any meaningful sense. This is simply because their environment doesn’t call for it as they’re mainly up in trees high above any lakes or rivers.
35. Chameleons hoot like owls
This isn’t a well known fact but chameleons actually have the ability to vibrate and this sometimes emits a barely audible hooting sound. They do a very obvious shake as a defence mechanism that’s usually accompanied by hissing but they also do a faster vibration that’s purely for communication with other chameleons.
36. Chameleons don’t have ears
This doesn’t mean they are deaf though. Although they have no ear openings they can detect sounds at frequencies between 200 and 600 Hz.
I used to call my chameleon, not that he ever paid much attention but he did certainly look my way at times or on the odd occasion he had his eyes shut not long before bed he’d open them again if he heard my voice.
37. Chameleons are solitary creatures
As humans we require social interaction, without it we suffer from loneliness and health problems both physical and mental. The opposite is true for chameleons.
They would much rather be left alone and are in highly stressed when too near other creatures. They only come into contact with other chameleons when one encroaches on another’s territory or when trying to mate. Most other creatures are viewed with suspicion by chameleons, including you.
38. Chameleons are fiercely territorial
As chameleons are so solitary they really don’t tolerate another chameleon getting too close. When this happens a chameleon will fiercely defend its territory which could be one branch in a tree, several branches or an area of desert. Check out this video for how fierce they can be and how pretty their colors are when they get angry!
39. Chameleons get angry when they look in the mirror
Obviously chameleon’s brains are not the same as ours so they, like nearly all animals, mistake their reflection for another rival chameleon. When this happens they fight their reflection in the same way as the video above.
40. Chameleons have no defenses
By that I mean they have no defenses like venom or a particularly strong bite to repel a predator. Instead, they use stealth to blend into their environment, their eyesight to spot quick escape routes and they will puff themselves up to make themselves look bigger.
41. Chameleons shed their skin throughout their life
When chameleons are young they grow rapidly and shed their skin every few weeks. At a young age they will shed their skin more or less in one go it’ quite a sight to behold! As they get older they continuously shed their skin but less frequently. The reasons for shedding is to maintain cleanliness, renew their skin or to accommodate rapid growth when they are younger.
42. Chameleons have acrodont teeth
This means their teeth are attached on top of their jaw and form part of it rather than being embedded in the jaw in sockets like humans have. Their teeth are very small but sharp and perfect for biting down on an insect.
43. Many chameleons have unique head features
Another striking feature of chameleons that often gets overlooked is their wide variety of head decorations. Jackson chameleons have horns protruding out their head, veiled chameleons have a veil casque on top of their head giving them their name and the strange nosed chameleon has, well, a strange nose between its eyes.
44. Chameleons can’t sweat
At least not like you or I can. Instead chameleons have a gland around their nose that they use to excrete excess salt. This forms a white crust around their nose that many people mistake for calcium.
45. Chameleons glow under UV light
This is an amazing recent discovery. As earlier mentioned, chameleons can see in the ultraviolet spectrum.
It’s thought this is useful for communication with other chameleons, a theory further advanced by the fact nearly all chameleons tested actually have spots on their head that glow up under UV light.
The glowing actually emanates from their bones at points where the skin is transparent enough to allow light to penetrate.
46. Chameleons make vitamin D3 in their skin
Vitamin D3 is vitally important for chameleons as it enables them to absorb calcium from their diet. Chameleons basque in the sun in the wild to warm themselves up and to soak up the UV rays. In captivity a heat lamp and a separate UV bulb are required for this. If a chameleon is unable to do this they can suffer serious health consequences very quickly.
47. It is illegal to take a chameleon from the wild
As many species are endangered it is illegal to take a chameleon from the wild. It is of course legal to breed and keep chameleons in captivity as pets.
48. It is illegal to have a pet chameleon in Australia
You need to have a licence to own a pet reptile in Australia and those licenses are only granted to owners of reptiles that are native to Australia. Despite its vast diversity of wildlife, chameleons are a non native species to Australia and are therefore illegal.
49. The American Chameleon is not a Chameleon
Nope, this common reptile that many are familiar with is actually a green anole and not a chameleon despite its nickname. It earned this nickname due to its ability to camouflage, to change color from brown to green and because of the similar diet it shares with chameleons.
50. Chameleons walk like they’re dad dancing
It’s true I mean just look at the video of this one who appears to like Johnny Cash. There are of course no country music bars to dance at in the trees of Madagascar so why do they walk like that?
It again comes down to the chameleon’s amazing ability to blend into its surroundings. Walking like that amongst leaves means it blends into swaying leaves in the breeze, it’s attempting to mimic a leaf to fool any potential predators. It looks funny in open ground but makes a lot of sense in dense jungle.
Phew! We made it to the end! I Hope you enjoyed reading these nifty chameleon facts and that you learned something new!
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