- Common Name:
- Scientific Name:
- Average Life Span:
- 4 months to 9 years, depending on the species
- 0.85 inches to 2.2 feet long
What is a chameleon?
There’s no mistaking the distinctive features of a chameleon: its telescopic eyes, grasping tail, color-changing skin, and projectile tongue. But while these animals are far from aggressive apex predators, the name chameleon comes from the Greek for “Earth lion.” They likely got the name from the crest on the head of some species that resembles a lion’s mane.
There are more than 200 species of chameleons, 76 of which are only found on the island of Madagascar. Their diet consists of insects and plants, although some may eat rodents or small birds. These solitary animals live in a range of habitats, including deserts, rainforests, and savannas.
Life in the trees
Chameleons are perfectly adapted to life in the trees. They have four feet, each with five toes—two that point in one direction and three in the other. This allows them to use their toes like a finger and thumb to grip branches tightly. Like seahorses and monkeys, they can wrap their tails around branches, freeing up their arms to reach for the next branch while keeping them steady. Unlike many other lizards, chameleons cannot regrow their tails if they are cut off.
Chameleons usually present as green or brown to blend into their arboreal habitat. It’s this natural coloring that protects them from predators. It keeps them safely hidden because they don’t have any poison or a dangerous bite to defend themselves.
It’s well-known that chameleons can change color, which they do using special cells and crystals in their skin. However, the belief they can change to match their surroundings is a common misconception. While they can display bright reds, oranges, blues, yellows, and more, chameleons cannot change to match any color.
When a chameleon does change color, it’s usually to stand out. For example, males put on vibrant displays to attract mates or to indicate aggression when a rival male encroaches on its territory. Males are more likely to win a fight if they have a brighter head color and change color more quickly. The loser admits defeat by turning off his display. Pregnant females, meanwhile, take on darker shades and act aggressively to discourage potential mates.
Color also indicates a chameleon’s mood: They turn dark when stressed, scared, or angry, and display beautiful colors while sleeping. As they can’t regulate their temperature, chameleons also become darker when they’re cold—because darker colors absorb more heat—and lighter when basking in the sun.
Chameleons’ bulging, swiveling eyes give them incredible panoramic vision—about 180 degrees horizontally and 90 degrees vertically—that helps them watch for potential threats. Each eye has a cone-shaped eyelid that’s fused to the eyeball with a tiny hole in the center for the pupil. Chameleons can focus each eye separately, switch between monocular and binocular vision to better judge distances, and move their eyes in different directions at once to watch one threat while simultaneously scanning their surroundings. Despite this impressive eyesight, they are nearly blind in the dark.
Most species lay eggs, which the female deposits in a hole in the ground. Smaller species might lay two to four eggs in a clutch, while others lay about 40. Eggs usually take four to 12 months to hatch. Notable exceptions include the Parson’s chameleon, whose eggs incubate for up to 24 months, and a few species such as Jackson’s chameleons that give birth to live young. These are born inside yolk sack membranes, which the mother sticks to branches until they are ready to emerge.
Baby chameleons are independent as soon as they’re born, and some never even meet their parents: the Labord’s chameleon only lives for four to five months after hatching, but its eggs take nine months to develop. This means that between the time the eggs are laid before winter and when they hatch ahead of the summer rains, the entire adult population will have died off.
Twice its body length, a chameleon’s sticky, projectile tongue is an evolutionary marvel used to catch prey. The tongue is compressed at the back of the animal’s throat like a jack-in-the-box ready to pop. When the chameleon spots its prey, it sends its tongue shooting forward with huge force, like a spring-loaded cannon. Some species can release their tongue with a speed that is equivalent to a car accelerating from zero to 60 miles per hour in a hundredth of a second—making them among the fastest tongues in the animal kingdom.
Rather than wrapping around prey, the tip of a chameleon’s tongue acts like a suction cup. Covered with a special sticky mucus that’s 400 times more viscous than human saliva, the tongue can snatch prey up to 30 percent of the chameleon’s bodyweight.
There are two contenders for the world’s largest chameleon: the Parson's chameleon is the largest by weight at around 1.5 pounds and 26 inches long, while the Malagasy giant chameleon grows to about 27 inches long.
Until recently, the smallest known chameleon was Brookesia micra, measuring less than 1.18 inches. However in 2021, the 0.85-inch Brookesia nana was discovered in Madagascar. About the size of a sunflower seed, this species may be the world’s smallest reptile—and could soon be listed as critically endangered because of habitat loss.
Threats to survival
About half of all chameleon species are threatened or near threatened, mainly because of habitat loss due to slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation, as well as the pet trade. Most species are listed on Appendix II of CITES, the treaty that governs the international wildlife trade. It means chameleons from the wild can be bought and sold across borders as long as they have a permit from the exporting country verifying their trade is sustainable. Nonetheless, a huge number are still caught illegally.
Chameleons are popular pets, and many are bred in captivity, but people often don’t realize how much work is required to keep them happy and healthy. Depending on the species, a chameleon needs a specific ambient temperature, humidity, bedding, and amount of space, as well as ultraviolet B light and more. A small mistake in their care can make them seriously ill. Those who do keep a chameleon as a pet should make sure they’re fully prepared to meet the animal’s needs.