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Facts About the Chameleon That'll Leave You Dumbstruck

Chameleon Facts
The word chameleon (or chamaeleon) is derived from the Latin word chamaeleō, which is a combination of two Greek words meaning 'lion' and 'on the ground'; in direct translation thereof, 'chameleon' stands for Earth Lion. Even though a chameleon is mainly known for its color-changing abilities, there are several other factors that make this creature a very interesting study.
Rujuta Borkar
Last Updated: Feb 17, 2018
The chameleon belongs to the Chamaeleonidae family (subfamilies Brookesiinae and Chamaeleoninae), and is a highly specialized type of lizard, known distinctly for its color-changing abilities, its three dimensional vision, its specialized feet, the functioning of its long tongue and several other functions. With over 160 known species found in the world, the chameleons come in a wide range of colors which include pink, red, orange, turquoise, green, blue and yellow.
Family and Subfamily
Broadly, all chameleons belong to the Chamaeleonidae family. These are further divided into two subfamilies known as the Brookesiinae and Chamaeleoninae -- each subfamily has distinct genera within itself.
The Brookesiinae subfamily is made up of 3 genera, which are as follows:
• Genus Brookesia
• Genus Rhampholeon
• Genus Rieppeleon
The Chamaeleoninae subfamily is made up of 8 genera, which are as follows:
• Genus Archaius
• Genus Bradypodion
• Genus Calumma
• Genus Chamaeleo
• Genus Furcifer
• Genus Kinyongia
• Genus Nadzikambia
• Genus Trioceros
Geographical Range
Distribution of Chameleons
Chameleons are known to thrive in warm climates and can be found in varying habitats that include rain forests and deserts. Mostly found in the African continent, 40% of these chameleons live on the island of Madagascar. There are several chameleon species that inhabit varied places in Europe and Asia as well -- these can be found in places like India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Spain and Palestine.
Several species of chameleons have however been introduced to places in America, like Florida, Hawaii and California, mainly as pets.
Chameleons are usually found in varied mountain and tropical rain forests, the savannas, and in some cases, deserts. Typically, chameleons from the Chamaeleoninae subfamily dwell in trees and bushes. There are however certain types (like the Namaqua Chameleon) which dwell on the ground as well.
Certain genera of the subfamily Brookesiinae are known to live in leaf litter on the ground (like the Horned Leaf Chameleon), while there are certain other species like the Namaqua Chameleon that live in the African Namib desert.
There are over 160 species of chameleons that are found the world over. Their color, habitat, sizes and several other factors draws a distinction among the varied species. The following are some of the most popular chameleon species.
Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis)
Sleeping Chameleon
A panther chameleon is distinguished by some of the most vibrant colors in all chameleon species. The color patterns of this species changes according to their geographical location (known as locales). The male species are more colorful than a female, and the colors become more pronounced during defensive displays or courtship. These are found mainly in Northern, Central-Eastern, North-Eastern and North-Western Madagascar, and are some of the most popular choices that people make for pets.
Jeweled Chameleon (Furcifer lateralis)
Jeweled Chameleon
Also known as the Carpet Chameleon or the White-Lined Chameleon, this species is one of the smallest species of chameleons found the world over. When fully mature, they measures up to 14 cm. They are strictly arboreal (dwell on trees), preferring shrubs and small trees, but will never pass up the opportunity of basking in the sun. A popular choice for pets, many live longer if bred in captivity Though, even in their natural habitat, they do not seem to live beyond 3 years. These are found in regions of Southern and Central Madagascar.
Four-Horned Chameleon (Chamaeleo quadricornis)
Four-horned chameleon
These chameleons, also known as Cameroon Bearded Chameleons or quads are, as the name suggests, native to Cameroon, Africa. Their most stunning feature is the presence of horns which are usually 4 in number but could go up till 6 as well. This species is also marked with a large sail fin that is present on their backs and the top of their tail. The Four-Horned Chameleons prefer cooler temperatures (below 80 degrees F), which is often difficult to duplicate in captivity, thus increasing the risk of them suffering from hyperthermia and dying. It is therefore not advised to keep this chameleon as a pet.
Jackson's Chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii)
Chameleon Profile
The Jackson's Chameleon gets its name from the last part of Frederick John Jackson's name (English explorer and ornithologist) who was serving as the first Governor of Kenya at the time of its discovery. This chameleon is native to the African continent and is found in the Kenyan and Tanzanian regions. The most striking feature of the male of the species is the three horns that are present on its snout and above the eyes, much like a Triceratops. The female of the species may or may not have three horns, but will have at least one. There are three known subspecies of this Chameleon, namely -- 1. The Standard Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii jacksonii), 2. The Mt. Kenya Yellow-crested Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus), and 3. The Mt. Meru or Dwarf Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii merumontanus).
Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus)
Walking Chameleon
This chameleon species is found in the mountains of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and is therefore sometimes referred to as the Yemen Chameleon. The most striking feature of this species is the helmet-like ridge (casque) that is present on top of its heads, which grows up to 2 inches (5 cm) in height when the reptile is fully mature. This crest or veil has an interesting function to play -- it is responsible for collecting moisture and then dripping it down towards the mouth for the chameleon to drink. Even though these are quite popular as pets, it is important that one is fully equipped with caring for them, because, unfortunately, the cases of their deaths in captivity are also quite high.
Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis)
Chameleon Flap Necked (Chamaeleonidae)
The Flap-necked Chameleon gets its name due to the large, movable flaps that are present on either side of the upper surface of the neck, behind its head. Found in the tropical regions of Africa like Northern Namibia and Northern and Eastern Botswana, it is one of the largest chameleons found in the world -- reaching up to a length of 35-38 cm when fully mature. This chameleon is also characterized by a whitish crest on its neck. When threatened, the chameleon inflates its body, raises its flaps, opens its mouth wide and rocks from side to side. It is also known to hiss, and can bite just as easily (though it carries no venom). It is one of the most common chameleons that changes its color easily when stressed, turning into a dark shade of green.
Sahel Chameleon (Chamaeleo africanus)
Sahel chameleon
Also known as the African Chameleon, this is one of the most common species of chameleons that are found in Africa and can grow to be anywhere between 30-40 cm when fully mature. It is distinguished by a distinct green coloration with two horizontal, thin yellow bands that run across the body. Its head extends to a raised bony structure known as the casque. It is one of the chameleons that can easily change its color from green to grey to yellow (in its varied shades) to indicate factors like danger, threat, and breeding conditions. This is easily observed in the female of the species who change their colors to indicate that they are not receptive to mating.
Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon)
Common Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon)
Also known as the Common Chameleon, this species is the only species of Chamaleonidae found in Europe and it thereby derives its name. It is found in abundance in areas of Southern Greece, Portugal, Malta, Southern Spain and Cyprus, and certain places in the Middle East. This is one of the larger species of chameleons, growing up to 40 cm in length, with the females of the species being slightly larger than the males. When in danger, the chameleon will puff up its body, filling it with air, and open its mouth wide in order to look larger and more fierce. Four subspecies of the same have been identified, namely --
  1. Chamaeleo chamaeleon chamaeleon
  2. Chamaeleo chamaeleon orientalis
  3. Chamaeleo chamaeleon musae, and
  4. Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista.
Senegal Chameleon (Chamaeleo senegalensis)
Senegal chameleon
This chameleon gets its name because it is a native to Senegal. It is also found in other places of Africa, like Nigeria, Mali and Cameroon. The Senegal Chameleon is usually olive green to tan in color and grows to about 7-8 inches when fully mature. This type of chameleon requires heavy foliage and is usually seen resting in trees and bushes. A Senegal Chameleon has a lean body, with the ribs showing when it is stretched and taut -- thus, if ever a puffy disposition or a bulging stomach is observed, it should be taken as a sign of ill-health. It is one of the most popular choices that people make for pets. One must however be aware that chameleons that are captured from the wild for pets are usually riddled with stress and other health-related problems, which may eventually lead to their death. That is why, when keeping a Senegal Chameleon for a pet, the choice should be made with one which has been raised in captivity.
Indian Chameleon (Chamaeleo zeylanicus)
Green animal, Chameleon
This chameleon, as the name suggests, is found mainly in the Indian subcontinent, parts of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and other regions of south Asia. In India, it is found to the south of the Ganges river and the Western region of the country. It is one of the chameleons that can change its skin color depending on factors like environmental conditions (heat, cold), impending threat, breeding behavior, and most importantly, communication with others. However, rarely is it found that the Indian Chameleon will change its color to blend in with the background. These chameleons prefer to stay in thick or semi-thick foliage and are usually found dwelling in trees. When in the shade and atop trees, they are observed to be a pale green or brown. This chameleon can grow up to a length of 37 cm.
Given that there are over a 160 species of chameleons, one will find varying sizes, body structures, and lengths of chameleons depending on their breed -- these sizes can range from 1-68 inches.

The following are two chameleons breeds that have been recorded as the world's largest and smallest breeds.
Parson's Chameleon (Calumma parsonii)
Parson's Chameleon
The Parson's Chameleon is reported to be the largest species of chameleons on Earth. There are two subspecies of the same that have been reported -- 1. The Calumma p. parsonii which reaches a length of 27 in (69.5 cm) and 2. The Calumma p. cristifer which reaches a length of 18½ in (47 cm). The difference between these two subspecies is that the Calumma p. parsonii has no dorsal crest while the Calumma p. cristifer has a small dorsal crest.
The Calumma p. cristifer, being the larger of the two subspecies, is almost equal to the size of a small cat. The most recognizable feature of this chameleon is the pronounced scaly ridge that is present above its eyes and runs down its snout. These chameleons are native to the Eastern and Northern regions of Madagascar.
Brookesia micra
Brookesia micra named 'Micra' after mikros, the Greek word for small or tiny, is the smallest chameleon of the world. It stands at a mere 1 inch (30 mm) from snout to tail and can be easily placed on top of a matchstick head. Recently discovered on one of the uninhabited islands of Madagascar (Nosy Hara Archipelago), scientists say that the island being uninhabited could be a possible explanation for their small size.
These chameleons are a light shade of grey on their head, tail and back, and their tail turns a slight tinge of orange and yellow as it tapers towards the tip. Their sides and legs are brown in color. They dwell on the ground during the day and take to the branches (a mere 4-5 cm off the ground) during the night.
Chameleons are basically insectivores, but their preferences have known to include several other choices as well. They survive on a diet that ranges from caterpillars, butterflies, worms, snails, geckos, lizards, wasps, mantises, crickets, earthworms, waxworms, grasshoppers, flies, and in case of larger chameleons, geckos and other chameleons as well. There are certain species that have known to eat leaves in order to fulfill their need of water.
Studies have proven that this reptile has developed some of the most highly specialized skills when compared to any other species, especially in the reptile world. The following factors can be studied in this regard.
Baby chameleon
Each eye can rotate independently
Studies have proven that this reptile has developed some of the most highly specialized skills when compared to any other species, especially in the reptile world. The following factors can be studied in this regard.
This form of vision gives them a 360 degree view -- thereby helping them keep an eye on their surroundings and being alert and aware of danger. Their eyesight being extremely good, they can spot small insects from a 5-10 m distance. Their vision is known to be their best feature and is often called 'binocular' in nature.
Chameleons do not have an outer and middle ear, and therefore there is no visible earlobe. Chameleons have 2 small holes for ears, located near the eyes which are not visible to the naked eye. Even though they are almost deaf, they can hear tones and feel vibrations in the air. This helps them take stock of their surroundings and makes them aware of danger. It also helps them hunt their prey better.
Chameleon shoots out tongue
The tongue lashes out and back in less than 0.07 seconds
The tongue of a chameleon is about 1½ times its body length and is highly specialized for hunting. The chameleons are not very fast and do not move very much, that is why their tongues have been adapted in a manner in which hunting becomes possible. The tip of the tongue is extremely sticky, and the end of the tongue is made up of muscle which converts into a suction cup when it hits the prey.
When a chameleon hits a prey with its tongue, the prey sticks to the tongue and is pulled back into the mouth in one swift motion -- this entire process lasts for about 0.07 seconds. Once in the mouth, the prey is crushed with the help of its strong jaws and teeth and swallowed. When the tongue is not in use, it is bunched up at the back of the mouth.
The tong-like feet allow easy gripping
Given that chameleons are arboreal, they are known to be excellent climbers. In aiding them in this function, chameleons have specialized toes which are flat and grouped in sections of 2 and 3 each, giving each foot a tong-like appearance. This arrangement helps them grasp onto branches and climb with ease. They also have very sharp and long nails which aids in the same function as well. Never clip the nails of a chameleon, if kept as a pet.
The tail of the chameleon is extremely long and prehensile in nature -- they can grab and hold on to a surface with the help of their tail. They usually curl their tails around a branch, balance themselves and stay in position like thus.
Panther Chameleon sits on a flower
The tail wraps around surfaces for balance
Though 'changing colors like a chameleon' has got a negative connotation to it, it is one of the most effective methods of camouflage adopted by any creature. Contrary to popular belief, the chameleon does not have the innate ability to change colors -- external factors such as temperature, danger, emotions and social signaling are responsible for their color change. The chameleon has a major distribution of melanophores in its body which are responsible for the change in color.
Since the chameleon's temperature is controlled from outside its body, their reaction to hot and cold temperatures leads to a change in the skin color. So also, fear, territorial instincts, stress, mating tendencies, communication patterns, and danger will lead to a change in color. All of this is involuntary.
Conservation Status
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has released a list which includes several chameleon species that fall under the extinction risk categories. Of these, the Bradypodion taeniabronchum, the Brookesia bonsi, and the Calumma hafahafa (Bizarre-nosed Chameleon), found in Africa are some species that are 'Critically Endangered' (there are several others as well); while the Brookesia exarmata and the Brookesia valerieae are those that are 'Endangered' (with more being added to the list everyday). Other than these, most other species are threatened in one way or the other owing to factors like habitat loss and pet trade. There are several other species that not only fall in these two categories but also in the 'Near threatened' and 'Vulnerable' categories that have been specified by the IUCN.
Interesting Facts
And if all that was not enough, here are a few more interesting facts about chameleons that you can look into.
» Adult chameleons shed their skin every 4-5 months in bits and pieces. They do this by puffing their body and cracking the dry skin. The entire process might take several months for completion. It is not uncommon for the chameleons to eat their own shed off skin.

» Chameleons are highly territorial and display fierce territorial behavior at the slightest provocation -- even if they see their own reflection in a mirror, it is said.
» Unlike many other reptiles, chameleons cannot re-grow their tails.

» Some chameleons assume an upside down position while sleeping.

» Chameleons do not sleep during the day. If a chameleon sleeps during the day, it can be taken as a sure sign of it being sick (this is a good indicator, especially if one has these as pets).
» An interesting fact to note is that none of the 160 odd chameleon species are found in the Americas or the 'new world' naturally; those that are naturally found in the 'new world' are in reality, Anoles.

» Chameleons are one of the few reptiles that are able to see in color.
The sheer range of their colors, the varied adaptations, and several other features, makes this species a highly popular choice for pets. Unfortunately, this is the exact reason why these creatures are being captured and shipped to different parts of the world. Moreover, their natural habitat is being destroyed by mankind for various reasons. All this has led to a drastic decrease in their numbers, and many now feature in the endangered species list. Keeping them as pets might seem like an interesting hobby to harbor, but it is not recommended in order for their continued existence. After all, observing this interesting creature in its natural habitat is no less than a thing of beauty.
Holding A Chameleon
Woman Holding Chameleon
Furcifer Campani