Mystery of the Chameleon

A chameleon in its natural habitat.


Oftentimes, a person who easily adapts or whose character or appearance frequently and rapidly changes, is referred to as a chameleon. Chameleons are lizards, well known for their ability to change colour.

Chameleons are naturally coloured for their surroundings as a camouflage. They change their colour in response to light exposure, ambient temperature and other environmental changes; and also to express emotion, not for camouflage or defence, as is popularly believed. In actual fact, a chameleon attacked by a predator turns reddish with brown or yellow stripes, to confuse it’s major predators (snakes, mammals) who do not distinguish the colours well.

In the cool morning, it dons a black coat that easily absorbs heat. At night, it turns a faded, whitish colour. When in areas of strong light intensity, chameleons turn brownish. At 25°C, they turn green; at 10°C, they turn grey.

 What exactly is the natural mechanism that makes a chameleon change its colours? Good question.

It possesses chromatophores in its skin which contain melanin (which is where the black colour comes from) and other pigments of different colours. Chromatophores retire or display their characteristics, and thus a chameleon controls its colour.

Chameleons are not merely colour palettes, however, they possess some other special features that are worthy of note.

The chameleon has a remarkably long, sticky tongue, which it projects ballistically into the air to catch insects. Its tongue launches at more than 26 body lengths per second. It accelerates from 0 to 6 meters per second in 20 milliseconds. Usually it hits the prey in about 30 thousandths of a second!

Its body is unusually shaped, and most chameleons are specially adapted to living in trees. The lizard’s long, thin legs raise it from the ground, and its toes are divided into opposable sets of two and three digits that enable it to grasp branches rather than cling to them as with claws. The strong, curled tail is also adapted to grasping.

Many chameleons have large domed, or casqued, heads, and males may have as many as three horns, sometimes used for combat. One striking three-horned species is Jackson’s chameleon of Africa.

The chameleon has a short neck that is of limited mobility. Their eyes are the most distinctive among the reptiles. The upper and lower eyelids are joined, with only a pinhole large enough for the pupil to see through. The eyes are big and can move independently of each other in many directions, giving them 360-degree vision around their body. Their visual focus is extremely sharp too.

The chameleon has no external eardrum, or tympanic membrane. Chameleons range in size from just a few centimeters to as large as 63 cm.

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