Chameleons Actually Don’t Change Color to Camouflage Themselves

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©. Deep Look

Most people know chameleons as masters of disguise, creatures that can change their colors to camouflage themselves in different environments. But now scientists have learned that’s wrong.

It turns out that chameleons change their colors to express their moods, not necessarily to blend into their surroundings. So, if you want to pick a clothing metaphor, it’s really more like a mood ring and less like a fatigue jacket.

The most recent episode of Deep Look, a show produced by KQED that looks at the world under a microscopic lens, digs into the new findings from researchers at UC Berkeley.

These lizards aren’t the only animals that use itty bitty crystals to change color. Earlier this year, researchers uncovered how tiny crustaceans called sea sapphires use layers of nano crystals to change color and seemingly disappear. And we’ve known for some time that the brilliant, shimmering blue of the Morpho butterfly is created with a similar nano structure.

Chameleon skin

© Deep Look. The cells containing tiny nanoscale salt crystals are responsible for the chameleon’s color change.

As the episode suggests, these discoveries can also inspire new technologies. One area where the nano crystals might be useful is in the field of anti-counterfeit security, like credit cards and bank notes.

But here’s my other question: what animal will we compare to people who seem to fit in, no matter the circumstance? My vote is snowshoe hare.

You can check out more episodes of Deep Look on KQED.