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Why and How Do Chameleons Change Color?


Chameleons are very well known for their ability that lets them rapidly change skin color. Often wrongly thought is that chameleons change color for camouflage and adaptation to the environmental colors they currently reside in, but the fact is that they mostly help themselves to regulate their own body temperature or give signals to other chameleons.

Since chameleons are not able to produce body heat, changing their skin color helps them maintain optimal body temperature. A supercooled chameleon will become darker in color allowing him to absorb greater amount of heat. Overheated chameleon on the other hand will change in to lighter colors helping him to bounce the excess body heat.

Red Chameleon

Slightly Aggresive Red Chameleon

Other reason as to why they change colors is for the purpose of communication with other members. Male chameleons become brighter when expressing dominance and darker in the event of a conflict when they become more aggressive. Females change their colors when they are ready to mate with the males. With this information owners of chameleons can learn and recognize in what mood their pets are currently in.

What enables them to change their skin color?

The outer layer of chameleon skin is translucent and under this layer there are number of cell layers which are composed of specialized cells called chromophore. Chromophore of each skin layer contains different kinds of pigments. The deepest layer is composed of melanophores, containing a brown pigment, melanin. Above them lies a layer of iridophores containing blue pigment and reflects blue and white light. The top layer is made of erythrophores and xanthophores that layer contains red and yellow pigments.

Usually pigments are hidden in special »bags« in cells. When it comes to a change in their body temperature or a mood change their nervous system responds and stimulates cells to either shrink or expand, allowing them to change their skin tone. By changing specific chromophores in all layers of their skin this can appear in spectacular spectrum of different vibrant colors and patterns.

Chameleon Colors

A Wide Spectrum of Different Colors

An excited chameleon for instance will become red with a full spread of all erythrophores and will block other colors in the lower-laying layers, further if  the chameleon is calm it will become greenish with contraction of these erythrophores, which allows light to penetrate to iridophores, reflecting blue light and mixing colors with a slightly shrunk xanthophores with yellow pigment.

Some chameleons are thus able to produce a wide range of colors from pink, red, blue, green, yellow and brown. This does not mean they are adopting the color of the environment, but loudly and clearly proclaiming their message to other members of the chameleon family.

Green Chameleon

Calm Chameleon

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  • Tim Sandle

    Fascinating and well illustrated.