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11 Unique Characteristics of Chameleons

We all know and think of the chameleon as a bright green lizard, capable of catching flies out of the air with its long tongue and perfectly camouflaging itself amongst any background. Can chameleons really do these things, and what other characteristics make them so unique? In this article, we will be covering just that.

11 Characteristics of chameleons

1. They change color not to blend in, but due to their mood and other environmental factors

A chameleon color changing
Chameleon color changing | Image by Marcel Langthim from Pixabay

Chameleons are rightly known for their quick ability to change color, but it isn’t to perfectly hide into their surroundings. As many large groups of animals, chameleons are very diverse, and can come in many shapes, sizes and of course – colors! Different chameleon species will change their color due to several factors, such as light availability, moisture levels and even their mood.

Color change can also be used as a form of general communication between individuals. Large, dominant male chameleons will present bright contrasting colors to attract females, whereas smaller males may become dull greys and browns to avoid attention.

2. Chameleons can move each eye independently

The eyes of chameleons are particularly complex. Similar to humans, their vision is stereoscopic, which means that they have good depth perception. However, chameleons are able to move each eye independently from each other, allowing them to view multiple objects at one and have a 360° range of vision.

3. They have incredibly large, specialized tongues

Chameleon catching its prey
Chameleon catching its prey | Image by Marcel Langthim from Pixabay

It is indeed true that chameleons have extra-long tongues – even up to three times their own body length! Their sticky tongues are rapidly projected towards insect prey using great precision due to their highly developed eyes.

Although chameleons will predominantly eat insects, some are known to consume vegetation and fruit, which doesn’t require that giant tongue to grab. Some larger species will even eat birds, frogs and lizards opportunistically.

4. They love to climb

Chameleons have a couple of adaptations which make them perfect climbers. Firstly, they have zygodactyl toes which essentially means two toes in the front and two toes in the back, forming these powerful grabbers for clinging to objects.

Secondly, many chameleons have prehensile tails, which means that they can control the movement of the tails. They will use these tails to not only help with balance during climbing, but even hold onto twigs and vegetation to prevent falling.

5. They live in trees and some on the ground

Panther chameleon on the rope
Panther chameleon on the rope | image by Marc Staub via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

There are many species of chameleons distributed throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. They are therefore found in many different environments where they mostly live in dense vegetation and in the trees. These habitats can include tropical rainforests, mountain ranges and savannahs.

Some chameleons can be found in the desert, where they spend most of their time on the ground. The Namaqua chameleon can be found in broad deserts in Namibia, South Africa, and spends its entire life on the ground, commonly using burrows to hide and sleep.

6. They are all sorts of sizes

Oustalet’s chameleon on small twig
Oustalet’s chameleon on small twig | image by Frank Vassen via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Some of the world’s smallest reptiles are chameleons, with adult male nano-chameleons, endemic to Madagascar, reaching maximum lengths of less than one inch! The largest chameleon species, the Oustalet’s chameleon, is also endemic to Madagascar and can reach maximum lengths of over two feet from its head to the tip of its tail!

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7. They vary in size and appearance

Jackson’s chameleon
Jackson’s chameleon | image by Caitlin Childs via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Many chameleon species are sexually dimorphic, where males are generally larger, more colorful and sometimes have head ornaments. The Jackson’s chameleon, native to Africa, have three large horns which protrude from the nose and above each eye – similar to a Triceratops! Whereas veiled chameleons, native to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, develop large casques or crests on their heads.

8. They lay eggs

Most chameleons are oviparous, which means that they lay eggs. Smaller chameleon species will generally lay only a few eggs, but some very productive chameleons, such as the veiled chameleon, can produce between 20-80 eggs on average.

Although it generally only takes a few months for baby chameleons to hatch from their eggs, the incubation period for a Parson’s chameleon, native to Madagascar, can take approximately two years!

9. If they can’t blend in, they have a few techniques to defend themselves

Male labord’s chameleon
Male labord’s chameleon | image by Frank Vassen via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Many chameleon species are adapted to be relatively cryptic to their background environment, hoping to remain unseen by predators such as birds and snakes. When seen, chameleons may adopt several strategies to defend themselves, such as turning a threatening dark coloration, flattening their bodies to appear larger, and opening their mouths as a warning. Sometimes they even make hissing noises.

10. They can make successful invasive species

Some chameleon species excel at surviving and breeding in areas outside of their native range. In Florida, a hotspot for invasive reptile species due to its climate, has several species of non-native chameleons present. Veiled chameleons, which are also invasive to Hawaii, can threaten native insects, plants and even small vertebrate communities.

Florida is now also home to introduced Oustalet’s chameleons (the largest chameleon species), which prey upon several insects and are even known to eat frogs and other species of lizards.

11. They can make great pets for the right person

Jackson’s chameleon crawling
Jackson’s chameleon crawling | image by Florence Ivy via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Due to their bright colors and general sturdiness, several chameleon species have become popular household pets. The main pet species are veiled chameleons for their general ease to care for, panther chameleons due to their striking colors, and Jackson’s chameleons for their interesting and attractive horns.