chameleon color change

Chameleons are known for their many unique qualities, including sticky snap tongues, eyes that move independently of each other, and, perhaps most fascinating, their ability to change skin color. But how do they change color? Can they match any environment? Why do they change color? Humans have been experimenting with the ability to morph into their surroundings for years, and are often imitated by hunters, soldiers, and teens sneaking out of their homes. But few have the abilities our beloved chameleon has. Not only do they have a camouflage pattern, but they can change and adapt to their environment by utilizing extremely specialized skin cells.

chameleon color

TV commercials, shows and movies claim that chameleons can magically change their skin color almost instantly to match whatever they’re standing on. But while there is some truth to this magic, chameleons have limits on the colors they can turn into and can’t match anything.

Green and brown are the primary colors of chameleons, and these hues help them camouflage their environment. Black is another color you’ll see on chameleons, especially on their throats, and some chameleons use this color to signal that they’re threatened. Certain species of chameleons can turn into more vibrant colors, such as pink, red, blue, turquoise, or yellow. Panther chameleon and Madagascar chameleon species are known to be extremely colorful and the most photographed species.

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How do chameleons change color?

Until recently, no one fully understood how chameleons change color. We now know that chameleons reflect light differently by adjusting tiny cells within their skin to change color. These cells are called iris cells, and they contain tiny crystals called nanocrystals. Nanocrystals of different sizes, arranged in different shapes and groupings, reflect light in different ways, discoloring a chameleon’s skin, similar to how crystals hanging from windows reflect sunlight and shine rainbows on walls. A chameleon’s skin is filled with these tiny crystals, which change and reflect light in different ways as they move the skin by relaxing or straining their bodies. Skin cells also expand and contract, so they get closer together. When the skin relaxes, it reflects shorter wavelengths of light, such as blue, and the iris cells are close to each other. Since a chameleon’s skin also contains yellow pigment, the blue and yellow mix together to create the chameleon color we often see at rest – green. When skin cells are far apart, they reflect longer wavelengths of light, including red and yellow. The study also found that female chameleons have far fewer iris cells in their upper skin, which allows males to change colors more than females.

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Why do chameleons change color?

Blending in with the environment is the number one reason chameleons change color to camouflage themselves and escape predators. But camouflage isn’t the only reason to change the look. Scaring away rival chameleons, impressing a partner, stress, keeping warm, and staying cool are all potential causes of dramatic color changes. Chameleons brought to the vet may turn dark or black from stress, while happy and relaxed chameleons turn bright greens and blues at home. Some chameleons can change color more than others, but all chameleons have some amount of iridescent cells in their skin.

Chameleons, like many other pet lizards, are amazing creatures!


chameleon color change
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