Why do chameleons change color?

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The first time I learned about chameleons changing colors was in elementary school reading Eric Carle's The Mixed Up Chameleon.  All I ever [thought I] knew about them was that they can change color to blend.  Since I know so little about this fascinating creature, I figured this was the perfect time to investigate further.

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Contrary to popular belief (...or at least my belief), chameleons don't change color in order to blend in with their surroundings.  National Geographic's website says that chameleons change colors due to light, temperature, and mood changes.  They even say that the color changes can help the chameleons communicate with each other.


In fact, a new study (also published on National Geographic's website), suggests that this communication aspect is used quite frequently.  "Instead of vocalizing or using pheromones, chameleons communicate visually by changing the colors and patterns of their skin. Different colors and patterns mean different things--similar to how the colors of a traffic light direct drivers."  The article continues by saying that bright colors are used to show dominance, attract mates, and defend territory.  Female chameleons also use this color changing method, mostly to attract or reject mates.


NatGeo gives some examples as to why light, color, and temperature may cause a chameleon's pigment to change.  Lighter colors reflect sunlight better, so the pigments may shift to adapt to this.  Darker colors absorb heat, so if a chameleon is cold, the dark colors may help warm it up.  If it's angry, it may turn red to reflect the mood.


The newer study found that through an experiment with 21 species of chameleons, communication was the primary reason for color change.  The chameleons changed colors when faced against fellow males, as well as predators, and all of this was measured against background color.  The environmental change showed no significance, but the article says very little more regarding this ("Chameleons Evolved Color Changing to Communicate").



Photo courtesy of this source

Cornell's website mentions that there are multiple kinds of chameleons.  While some follow the description above (and change color based on temperature, light, and mood), there is another kind of chameleon that changes color to blend in with its surroundings (they're called anoles).  Anoles change between green and brown, which is perfect for camouflaging in trees.   Anoles are likely what we've witnessed in America (southeastern area, like Florida), the Caribbean, South and Central America.  The chameleons described above are more common in Africa.


Now that we know why these creatures change colors, let's talk about how they do it.  Chameleons have unique cells called chromatosphores.  These are cells that are layered with different colored pigments.  The tops of the chromatosphores have the red and yellow pigments, while the bottom layers have blues and whites.  The brain sends a message to these cells to change color, and the pigments mix together.  Melanin can also help make the chameleons appear darker ("Chameleons").


Thanks to the children's book, my interest was sparked.  Now after doing some research, I feel as if I have a better sense for why chameleons behave in certain ways.

(Check out this video; embedding not available)


1 Comment

I find this topic very interesting because I also beleive dthat they changed their color for protection . but I have a question , perhaps ,their mood is changed when they are under pressured. For example, maybe they can feel danger comming and become nervous and they become the color of the object that they are on ?

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