7 Colorful Facts You Might Not Know About Chameleons

Parsons Chameleon, Madagascar
Chameleons typically match the colors of their environments. Paul Souders / Getty Images

Chameleons are known for their bulging eyes and their ability to change color. In fact, their colorful transformations are so iconic that the term "chameleon-like" is often used to describe someone who's good at blending in. However, chameleons are not the camouflage masters many of us believe them to be. Their color changes serve entirely different purposes related to courting and social interactions.

Let's take a closer look at some of the lesser-known facts about these fascinating lizards.

1. There Are More Than 200 Chameleon Species

Nearly two-thirds of all chameleon species are found in Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa. There are 202 species of chameleons, as well as an additional 23 subspecies, according to the “Taxonomic checklist of chameleons (Squamata: Chamaeleonidae)” published in 2015 in the journal Vertebrate Zoology. The authors point out that 44 new species have been described and many species have been elevated from subspecies rank since the last checklist was published in 1997. In addition, some species were “resurrected from synonymy” as they had been grouped with other species but have since been found to be separate species.

2. Chameleons Come in a Wide Range of Sizes

Male Parson's Chameleon
The Parson's chameleon can be more than 2 feet long. Ken Griffiths / Getty Images

One of the largest chameleons is the Parson’s chameleon. Found only on the eastern side of Madagascar, it can grow more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) long. Part of its length is due to its long snout which can be about 8-12 inches (around 20-30 centimeters) of its body size.

Believed to be the world’s tiniest chameleon, Brookesia micra can fit on the tip of a match. Found only on a tiny islet near Madagascar and described for the first time in 2012, a male B. micra is about 1.1 inches (30 millimeters) from nose to tail and only about .6 inch (16 millimeters) from nose to bottom.

3. They Use Their Toes and Tails to Get Around

Veiled Chameleon
A veiled chameleon hangs from a branch with help from its tail. Tim Platt / Getty Images

Chameleons rely on their toes and tails to help them navigate the trees and bushes where they live. Like most lizards, chameleons have five toes, but chameleons have theirs spaced differently. On their front feet, the two outside toes are in one configuration with the three inside toes in another group. The toes on the back feet are in the opposite combination. They use these toe groups like thumbs and fingers to grasp branches when they move.

Most chameleons also have prehensile tails, which they can use to hold onto objects like limbs to help them as they climb. Unlike many lizards that can regrow a broken tail, chameleons aren't able to regrow a tail if they are injured.

4. Chameleons Don't Change Colors to Camouflage Themselves

Two Chameleons are Fighting
Sometimes male chameleons will turn colors to court females or to warn off other males. Dissoid / Getty Images

It's a common misconception that chameleons change colors in order to blend in with their backgrounds. A chameleon’s natural coloring already blends very well with its natural habitat. Most chameleons are already the colors of leaves, bark, branches, or sand.

Instead, research suggests they change color because of their mood and social interactions. A 2015 study found that crystal-like cells in their skin — called iridophores — reflect and absorb all colors of light. Males will turn bright colors to try to impress females during courtship or to warn off other males in a display of aggression.

Some research also suggests that chameleons may change colors to regulate their body temperature. A 2016 study found that bearded dragons change their color based on their body temperature. Because chameleons are also ectotherms that can’t retain body heat, it’s likely that becoming darker helps them stay warm, and becoming lighter helps them cool off. 

5. They Have Panoramic Vision

Green chameleon portrait
A chameleon's eyes work relatively independently. SensorSpot / Getty Images

Chameleons' eyes are unique among reptiles. They have scaly cone-shaped eyelids with very small, round openings for their pupils. Chameleons can rotate each eye separately to focus on two different things at once. It’s long been believed that their eyes work independently, so chameleons have a panoramic view of the environment around them.

In a 2015 study, researchers found that the eye movements of a chameleon aren’t truly independent. Researchers found that there is some communication between the eyes and they go back and forth between divergent and binocular vision.

6. They Have Sticky, Speedy Tongues

Panther Chameleon Extending Its Tongue
A panther chameleon captures an insect with its tongue. Joe McDonald / Getty Images

A chameleon’s tongue is about twice as long as its body. When it sees an insect that looks like a tasty meal, the chameleon unfurls its sticky tongue with such speed that the insect is utterly caught off guard as it's captured. According to a 2016 study, the chameleon's tongue unfurls with lightning-fast recoil thanks to the force by which it releases its tongue muscles.

Researchers analyzed high-speed video of dozens of chameleons eating insects. The tongue of the Rhampholeon spinosus produced a peak acceleration 264 times greater than the acceleration due to gravity. National Geographic explains that if it were a car, the chameleon's tongue could accelerate from 0 to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour in a mere 1/100th of a second. 

7. Some Chameleons Are Endangered

tiger chameleon on branch
Endangered tiger chameleons are found in the Seychelles. Hans Stieglitz

According to the IUCN's Red List, many species of chameleons are endangered. The Calumma tarzan and the bizarre-nosed chameleon in Madagascar are both critically endangered due to threats like mining, logging, and agricultural use of land. The tiger chameleon in the Seychelles, the giant East Usambara blade-horned chameleon in Tanzania, and Decary's leaf chameleon in Madagascar are all endangered.

Other species, like the veiled chameleon and the Mediterranean chameleon, are classified as species of least concern. They are not facing many threats and their population numbers are stable.