Length: longest— Madagascan chameleon, or Oustalet's chameleon Furcifer oustaleti, up to 23 inches (60 centimeters) long; shortest— pygmy leaf chameleon Brookesia minima, 0.9 inches (2.54 centimeters)
Life span: Unknown in wild; over 10 years in zoos
Gestation/Incubation: For live young, 4 to 6 months; for egg incubation, 4 to 24 months, depending on species.
Number of young at birth/number of eggs laid: Most chameleons are egg layers, with small species laying 2 to 4 eggs and large species laying 80 to 100 eggs. Some species give live birth to 8 to 30 young.
Age of maturity: 1 to 2 years, depending on species
Conservation status: Smith's dwarf chameleon Bradypodion taeniabronchum is at critical risk; tiger chameleon Calumma tigris and Setaro's dwarf chameleon Bradypodion setaroi are endangered.
The egg of the rare Parson's chameleon Calumma
parsonii is believed to take up to 24 months to hatch.
A chameleon's tongue can be shot out to an extraordinary length: in some species the tongue is longer than its body!
Chameleons seem to prefer running water to still water.
The name “chameleon” means “earth lion” and comes from the Greek words chamai (on the ground, on the earth) and leon (lion).
In the reptile world there are some bizarre shapes and colors. Some of the most striking variations are found in the chameleons. These colorful lizards are known for their ability to change their color, their long sticky tongue, and for their eyes, which can be moved independently of each other. Chameleons spend their lives in the trees and bushes. Most lizards have five toes, but the chameleon's five toes are zygodactylous so they can grasp branches just like our thumbs and fingers can grasp objects. The chameleon's tail also helps with life up high: most have a prehensile tail that can wrap around tree branches while climbing. For this reason, the chameleon's tail cannot be broken off and regrown like those of many other lizards.
The chameleon's eyes are the most distinctive among the reptiles. Each eye has a scaly lid shaped like a cone, with only a small, round opening in the middle for the pupil. The chameleon can rotate and focus its eyes separately to look at two different objects at the same time! This gives it a full 360-degree view around its body. When the chameleon sees prey, both eyes can focus in the same direction to get a clearer view.
A skin of many colors
How chameleons change color is a fascinating and complicated process. First of all, they don't really change color to match their surroundings, and they cannot change to any and all colors. For example, if a chameleon is sitting on a red-and-white polka dot tablecloth, it will not turn red and develop round white spots! Chameleons don't look at what they're sitting on and deliberately decide to match it. Instead, each species of chameleon has a group of patterns and colors that it is able to display; some of these patterns are designed for camouflage. The skin color changes under the influence of the lizard's mood, such as fear or anger, the amount of light, and the temperature or humidity. The changing skin color also plays an important role in communication among males.
So how do they do it? Chameleons have four layers of skin: the outer, protective layer called the epidermis; the chromatophore layer that contains yellow and red pigments; the melanophore layer that contains the dark pigment melanin and can create brown and black colors or reflect blue; and the nether layer, which only reflects white. Nerve impulses and hormone changes cause the color cells in these layers to expand and shrink, and the blending of the different layers creates the colors and patterns that we see.
Which came first: the chameleon or the egg?
Most female chameleons are oviparous. The number of eggs laid varies among different species. When the eggs are ready to be laid, the female will climb down to the ground and dig a hole. She deposits the eggs in the hole, buries them, and leaves the nesting site. There are a few chameleon species, such as the Jackson's chameleon Chamaeleo jacksonii (see below), that are viviparous.
A few days after the young hatch or are born, they begin to hunt insects. They instinctively know how to survive without a parent to teach them. The hatchlings look like miniature adults, except that their coloration and markings are not as bright. They grown quickly, and many species reach sexual maturity before the end of their first year.
Who needs a fork when you have a tongue?
Chameleons generally eat insects such as locusts, mantids, grasshoppers, stick insects, and crickets. Some larger chameleons have been known to also eat small birds and other lizards. A few species have been known to eat a bit of plant material. The San Diego Zoo's Parson's chameleons Calumma parsonii are fed crickets, wax worms, mealworms, roaches, and occasionally a baby mouse. Chameleons don't move around very fast, so they use their incredibly long tongues to catch the insects they eat. They are able to stick the tongue out of their mouth very quickly. The tongue has a sticky tip on the end to snag prey items that they would otherwise never be able to catch. The end of the tongue is a ball of muscle, and as it hits its prey, it rapidly forms a small suction cup. Once the prey sticks to the tongue, the chameleon draws it back into the mouth, where its strong jaws crush it for swallowing. Even small chameleons are able to eat large insects. The tongue is kept bunched up at the back of the mouth until it is needed again.
The horned chameleon
The Jackson's chameleon Chamaeleo jacksonii is native to the humid, cooler regions of Africa's Kenya and Tanzania. It is usually found in great numbers in mountainous areas. One subspecies was introduced to Hawaii in the 1970s and has since grown int a large feral population. The Jackson's chameleon is a small- to medium-sized chameleon best known for its sawtooth-shaped dorsal ridge. The female Jackson's chameleon is one of the few chameleon species that give live birth instead of laying eggs—from 8 to 30 live young after a 5- to 6-month gestation period.
Jackson's chameleons are sometimes called three-horned chameleons because males have three brown horns (the females usually have no horns). The horns are used to defend the male's territory. On a narrow tree branch, males may lock horns and try to push the other off. Jackson's chameleons are usually bright green, with some traces of blue and yellow, and are usually less territorial than most species of chameleons.
Shades of green
The veiled chameleon Chamaeleo calyptratus is a large species of chameleon found in the mountain regions of Yemen and Saudi Arabia where there is very little water. Males and females differ greatly in size, with the males being much larger, although both have a decorative growth on their heads that looks like a party hat but is called a casque. The casque acts like a water collector: at night, droplets of moisture roll down the casque and into the chameleon's open mouth! Males also have a spur on each hind leg that the females do not. Veiled chameleons are omnivores, eating insects, leaves, and flowers. Female veiled chameleons can produce three clutches of eggs a year. Each clutch may have 20 to 70 eggs and take 6 to 9 months to hatch.
Amazing little discoveries
Brookesia is a genus of chameleons found in Madagascar. They are considered the world's smallest chameleons. Brookesia chameleons have a short, nonprehensile tail. Most species in this genus were only identified to science within the last 30 years and do not even have common names. Due to their small size and secretive nature, they have not been studied as much as their larger relatives. There are currently 26 recognized species in the Brookesia genus. We still have much to learn about these amazing lizards!