Chameleons are known for being able to change their skin color, but they’ve got plenty of other special tricks as well. They can shoot out their tongues at alarming speeds, use their tails as extra limbs, and even see in two different directions at once. Here are a few fascinating facts about these colorful lizards.
1. A chameleon’s feet work like salad tongs.
Most lizards’ feet have four to five toes that can move independently. But evolution has taken chameleon limbs in a different direction. Chameleon feet consist 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, their feet clamp down onto vines and branches. Chameleons usually hold their legs almost directly underneath their bodies, giving 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 chameleon species live in Madagascar.
There are around 200 known chameleon species, 44 percent of which can be found in Madagascar—leading some experts to wonder if the whole chameleon family evolved there (though a modern analysis deemed mainland Africa a more likely origin point). Other species of chameleon live in India, the Middle East, and mainland Africa.
3. Chameleons vary widely in size.
In 2021, biologists working in Madagascar confirmed the discovery of the smallest chameleon on record. Known as Brookesia nana, adult males of this diminutive species measure about 14 millimeters or roughly half and inch long—and half the size of the former smallest known chameleon, Brookesia micra. (B. nana females are slightly larger, about three-quarters of an inch long.) Meanwhile, the island is also home to the two largest chameleon species: the Malagasy giant chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti) and the Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsonii), each of which can grow up to 27 inches.
4. Chameleons change color mainly to communicate or regulate body temperature.
When a chameleon changes its skin color, it usually isn’t trying to camouflage itself. 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 their 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 male 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). 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 the combatant with brighter and more rapidly changing stripes.
5. Skin crystals enable chameleons to change color whenever they want.
Until recently, scientists thought that chameleons 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. Chameleons can expand and reduce the distance between the nanocrystals. By spreading them farther apart, they cause their crystals to reflect yellow or red light. The skin’s apparent color then changes accordingly.
6. Unlike other 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 body weight, 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, like 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 in two directions simultaneously.
Each eye has the incredible range of motion of 90° vertically and 180° horizontally. They 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: its 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.
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 Malagasy giant 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 have a distinctively 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.