11 Showstopping Chameleon Species

strange and beautiful different species chameleon illustration

Treehugger / Caitlin Rogers

With their ever-changing colors, vivid patterns, and Stegosaurus-like spiky backs, chameleons are certainly among the most photogenic reptiles. With somewhere around 200 species included in the family Chamaeleonidae, this immense group of Old World lizards is surprisingly diverse. True chameleons are categorized under four genera — Bradypodion (dwarf chameleons), Brookesia (leaf chameleons), Chamaeleo (common chameleons), and Rhampholeon (pygmy chameleons) — but Calumma and Furcifer are widely recognized as additional genera. Madagascar is home to nearly two-thirds of all chameleons species, but the shade-shifting animal thrives in all sorts of environments, even deserts.

Here are 11 strange and beautiful types of chameleon.

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Jackson's Chameleon

Jackson's Chameleon with curled tail on branch
David A. Northcott / Getty Images

Jackson's chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii) is one of the more unusual species. Its three horns, located on its nose and above each eye, reminds many of a Triceratops. Only males have these horns, and they use them to protect their territories (say, to knock another male off a branch). They are usually bright green, range in size from small to medium, and reside in the woodlands and forests of East Africa, although they have also been introduced in Hawaii, Florida, and California. Also called the three-horned chameleon for its peculiar protrusions, it it is one of the only ovoviviparous (live-bearing) chameleons.

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Brookesia Micra

Tiny Brookesia micra chameleon in grass
Artush / Getty Images

Brookesia micra, which goes by its scientific name, is the smallest known chameleon — able even to balance atop the head of a match when it's young. Only recently discovered in 2012, on the uninhabited Madagascan islet of Nosy Hara, the tiny reptile reaches only about one inch as a full-grown adult. It shares a genus with other leaf chameleons.

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Lance-Nosed Chameleon

Lance-nosed chameleon with colorful snout on branch
David Cayless / Getty Images

The incredible lance-nosed or "blade" chameleon (Calumma gallus) is known for its long, pointed, and flexible nose, which has distinctive purple, blue, and green spots. Native to east and northeast Madagascar, where it hides away in hard-to-access slopes blanketed by ferns, it has been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as endangered due to deforestation.

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Parson's Chameleon

Parson's chameleon walking on branch at night
by toonman / Getty Images

Parson's chameleon (Calumma parsonii) encompasses two subspecies — Calumma parsonii cristifer and Calumma parsonii parsonii — both found on the eastern side of Madagascar. Males exhibit a brilliant green or turquoise color and contrasting yellow eyelids, but their beauty is secondary to their size. This is the largest extant chameleon in the world, growing about 27 inches in length (including its tail). Its snout alone can be more than an inch long.

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Brown Leaf Chameleon

Brown leaf chameleon blending in with a branch
Mike Powles / Getty Images

The brown leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris) gets its name from its resemblance to a rolled-up dead leaf. It looks this way, of course, to evade predators. When threatened, it'll usually freeze, fold its legs under its belly, and roll over to blend in with the colorless foliage. It's no surprise that it spends most of its life on the forest floor of eastern Madagascar. It's also sometimes called the stump-tailed chameleon because of its particularly stubby appendage.

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Jewelled Chameleon

Jewelled chameleon on a tree branch
dennisvdw / Getty Images

The jewelled chameleon (Furcifer campani) is called so because of its distinctively ornate design. Endemic to the central highlands of Madagascar, the species is covered in brightly colored spots. Also called Campan's chameleon, this embellished lizard is listed by the IUCN as a vulnerable species. Its population continues to dwindle because of habitat loss due to agricultural production and bush fires.

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Rhinoceros Chameleon

Green rhinoceros chameleon on leaves
cheekylorns / Getty Images

The rhinoceros chameleon (Furcifer rhinoceratus) is like a mini version of the odd-toed ungulate from which it gets its name. That hornlike nose is much more prominent in males than in females, and the former is twice as large as the latter, too — growing to be up to 24 inches long. Unlike most other chameleons, this species can be found in Africa as well as the dry forests of Madagascar.

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Panther Chameleon

Colorful panther chameleon with tongue out on branch
kuritafsheen / Getty Images

The panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) has a spectacular color pattern of brilliant red, orange, green, and turquoise, all displayed via decorative stripes, spots, and other geometric shapes. It's no surprise, taking into account these colors, that it prefers a tropical environment, which it finds in northern and eastern parts of Madagascar. The panther chameleon's suctioning tongue is sometimes longer than its own body. It extends it rapidly to catch insects passing by.

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Veiled Chameleon

Veiled Chameleon on a flower, Indonesia
kuritafsheen / Getty Images

Because the veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) lives in warm, dry areas like the plateaus, mountains, and valleys of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, it has a special system for collecting water. It has an especially lofty casque — that hump on its head — that channels rainwater into the chameleon's mouth. In addition to eating insects, the veiled chameleon has also been known to dine on plant matter, perhaps for extra hydration.

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Nose-Horned Chameleon

Small nose-horned chameleon climbing on leaf
Artush / Getty Images

The nose-horned chameleon (Calumma nasutum) is unique in that it's actually described as a "species complex," a result of numerous genetic lineages. Aesthetically, it is known for its ornamental head and soft rostral appendage. There are currently nine subspecies of nose-horned chameleon, and still, scientists expect that there are more that haven't been discovered. They are native to eastern and northern Madagascar.

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Cameroon Sailfin Chameleon

Cameroon sailfin chameleon on a branch at night

reptiles4all / Shutterstock

The Cameroon sailfin chameleon (Trioceros montium) is almost exclusively found around Mount Cameroon, located in the country of the same name in Central Africa, as it lives only in rainforests that are about 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. Males have two large horns — located above the upper jaw and used for jousting — and a flap of skin along their backs, resembling a sail.