Chameleons: There’s nothing that isn’t weird about them

When you really think about it, there’s nothing that isn’t weird about a chameleon.

They change colour


Is he cold or pissed off? Credit: David Dennis

Well, let’s start with the obvious one. Everyone knows chameleons change colour, we just accept it like it’s normal. IT IS NOT NORMAL.


This one’s probably fairly happy, despite his facial expression. Credit: David Dennis

When I was little, I was told chameleons change colour to blend in with their background. I always wondered what would happen if you put them on a floral patterned teatowel. But it turns out this isn’t true. Chameleons actually change colour depending on their mood, giving social cues to their lizard mates. Generally, darker colours mean they’re angry and lighter colours are used to attract a partner. Sometimes they change colour to help regulate their temperature. For example, if a chameleon’s cold it might get darker so it can absorb more heat. But how do you know if it’s angry or cold? In my case, it’s very often the same thing.

They’ve got swively, swively eyes

Chameleon's eye

This eye is better than yours. Credit: Umberto Salvagnin

They don’t have a top eyelid. They don’t have a bottom eyelid. Their eyes move independently. They can see ultraviolet light. They can zoom in, like mini camera lenses. They can see in a 360 degree arc. It’s all too much for me.

Chameleon's eye

Look at the angle on that! Credit: Björn Söderqvist

I’ve spent quite a while looking into the science of all this and frankly I don’t understand most of it. However, I did learn that because their eyes move independently, they can locate a potential threat without moving their bodies much, and therefore avoid detection. Sometimes they’re able to slowly move their bodies to behind a branch, or whatever is nearby, without taking their eyes off the predator. Clever.

They have got a ballistic tongue

Chameleon's tongue

She’s looking pretty pleased with her lunch. Credit: Caroline Cranycome

And I thought the eyes were complicated. Scientists have been looking at just how the chameleon can move its tongue so fast. And it does move it fast. Very fast! If its tongue was a car, it would go from 0 to 60mph in one hundredth of a second. The scientists used 20 different mathematical equations to work out how the tongue works. I immediately feel confused. Derek Moulton, an associate professor of mathematical biology at Oxford University says:

“In mathematical terms, what we’ve done is we’ve used the theory of non-linear elasticity and captured the energy in these various tongue layers and then passed that potential energy to a model of kinetic energy for the tongue dynamics.”

Very good, Derek. This research will be used in biomimetrics, which is using nature to influence design and technology.

Here’s a video of some chameleons blasting their tongues out of their mouths to catch their dinner. The tip of the tongue is a ball of muscle that acts as a suction cup on the prey. Consider, while you watch it, that the tongue can extend to twice the length of its body and it unravels telescopically – a bit like a lightsaber. Now think about the tallest person you know and imagine their tongue being twice the length of their body.

They have claspy little toes


Look at those hands! Look at that tail! Credit: Becks

I don’t like feet usually, but these little feet are just adorable. This style of foot is known as zygodactylous. I can’t pronounce that so I would simply call it a science foot. This means that their toes are arranged in groups, usually pairs. I’ve got a mate with feet like that. A chameleon has five toes on each foot. That’s something most of us have in common with them. However, the front feet have two tootsies that point outwards and three that point inwards, and on the back feet the toe arrangement is reversed. This is for optimum branch grip. They also have tiny claws that help them scale a tree.

Chameleon tail

Not only is the tail prehensile, it’s very neat too. Credit: Jay Iwasaki

Their tail helps with that too; it’s prehensile which means it can grip. I feel like I’ve just slipped that bit of information in, like it’s no big deal. Yeah, other animals have prehensile tails too, like some monkeys, but really think about it for a moment: it’s like having a rear facing, long, fingerless hand. Imagine that.

There are loads of them

Tiny chameleon

What a tiny thing. Credit: Frank Glaw, Jörn Köhler, Ted M. Townsend, Miguel Vences – Glaw F, Köhler J, Townsend TM, Vences M

It’s thought there are 160 different species of chameleon, with around 101 of them on the island of Madagascar. What an amazing place that must be. Some of these chameleons have horns. They are real life Pokémon. I’ve written about the smallest one, the Brookesia micra, before in a post about teeny tiny animals. It’s so small, it could crawl into your mouth at night and you wouldn’t even know. The biggest chameleon, Parson’s chameleon, on the other hand, could crawl on to your bed at night and you would just assume it’s the cat; they get that big.

A Parson's chameleon

A Parson’s chameleon having a nap in a tree. Credit: gailhampshire

Here are some more chameleons for your viewing pleasure:


Credit: NH53


Credit: nomis-simon


Credit: Connor Mah


Credit: nomis-simon

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About Lizzie Brooks

Lizzie Brooks

The most beautiful place I have been (so far!) has been Norway. Coming in to land in Oslo was like coming in to land in a fairytale; pine trees that looked like velvet amongst frozen fjords, the occasional wisp of smoke coming up from a little yellow or red house within the trees. Beautiful!

I kind of expected to see a Moomin emerging (but they are from Finland, of course).

Lizzie works in our marketing team

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