Chameleons ~ Earth’s most colourful and unique reptiles

Chameleons (Chamaeleonidae) ~ best known for their unique and exotic colours and their ability to change those colours. They are also known for their interesting body features with crests and crowns, curled tails, grasping feet, unusual gait when walking, and their googly swivelling eyes.

Chameleons ~ Earth's most colourful and unique reptiles

They are part of the Old-World Lizard species with evolutionary roots dating back over 61 million years ago. Their ideal habitats are warm moist tropical rainforests, savannahs and live mainly in trees. They can also live in the desert.

Madagascar chameleon

While chameleons are native to Madagascar and sub-Saharan Africa, some are found in parts of southern Europe, southern Asia, southern India, and Sri Lanka. They are an introduced species in other countries. Around 52% of the world’s chameleon population lives on the island of Madagascar. Of these, approximately 50% are threatened or near-threatened, 23 species are endangered, and 5 species are critically endangered. In total 36% of the world’s chameleons are currently threatened with extinction.

Chameleons ~ Earth's most colourful and unique reptiles

Chameleons are known for their ability to change colour.  They are able to do this very efficiently as they have two layers within their skin structure, placed on top of one another. These two layers control colour change by using a lattice substance called guanine nanocrystals. When the chameleon’s body ‘excites’ the lattice, the distance between the nanocrystals increases. This changes the wavelengths of light which are reflected and absorbed by their skin, therefore changing their colour and pattern.

Madagascar chameleon
Why chameleons change colour
  • Thermoregulation ~ being cold-blooded chameleons are unable to generate their own body heat. When they are cold their skin turns dark to absorb more heat, and when they become hot, their skin will lighten to reflect the sun’s heat.
  • Communication ~ to alert other chameleons about their intentions, such as; to attract a mate or to let others know to stay away and show dominance when defending their territories. Changing colours is also to intimidate other males.
  • Camouflage ~ safety and protection from predators.
Small chameleon on reeds
Chameleon facts
  • Chameleons are solitary animals.  Males tend to be very territorial and will tolerate a female during mating for very short periods.
  • Being solitary animals, chameleons are not people-friendly. Many are caught and sold as pets and eventually die due to stress and poor care in captivity.
  • A prehensile tail allows for easy grasping onto branches.
  • Crest and small spikes extending down their spine.
  • Diurnal animals (daytime animals) and live solitary lives apart from when they are mating.
  • They use their tails as a fifth limb, which facilitates moving between branches more easily. Unlike lizards, they do not shed their tails when a predator grabs it, and they can’t regrow their tails.
  • Very interesting walking habits of swaying back and forth.  Scientists have not unravelled this strange walking style.
  • Chameleons continue to grow throughout their lives and must constantly shed their skin in bits and pieces as they grow.
  • They range in sizes from 2.5 cm to 70 cms long. They have the ability to make themselves look larger by puffing out their bodies to scare off predators and other chameleons.
  • Four long slim legs with five toes on each foot allow for holding on to branches and for grasping and climbing.
  • Large protruding and swiveling eyes that move independently of each other. This allows the chameleon to look in all directions with a 360° view of their surroundings. They can look forward, backward, and sideways all at the same time, without moving their head or their bodies. This ability is also useful when searching for food and looking out for predators.
  • A chameleon’s tongue can extend beyond the length of its body, it is sticky and well adapted to catch its prey in mid-air if it has to.
  • Chameleons’ body structure is covered with many bumps and protrusions, and the scales on their backs create large crests and ridges.
  • Some chameleons have hoods or crowns, which are bony ridges on the back of their skulls. These ridges serve two purposes; to collect water which slides down into their mouth for hydration, and the other is for males to appear more fearsome and intimidating when they are fighting for a female. Females also are impressed with males with large crowns.
  • Besides humans, birds are their main predators – large birds will swoop down and grab a chameleon with their talons and fly off with them. Having large strong toes to grip branches makes it difficult for birds to pry them off.
Chameleon catching insects
Long sticky tongue to catch flying insects
Communicating chameleon
Not sure if this one was laughing or about to attack ~ however, it was enough to make me back off smartly!
Prehensile tail allows for holding on to branches
Prehensile tails allow for holding on to branches
Four strong feet  grasp onto branches very tightly
Four strong feet grasp onto branches very tightly
Handsome Madagascar chameleon
Handsome Madagascar chameleon
Reproduction

During mating season, males endeavor to attract females by bobbing their heads, puffing out their bodies, and displaying brighter than usual colours. In the event a female is not interested, males may persist. If a female is not interested, she will attack and bite, the latter can kill a male.

Most chameleon species lay eggs in deep burrows to keep the eggs cool. The burrow is covered with leaves for protection from predators. It can take from 6- 9 months for chameleon eggs to hatch. Once hatched the young are independent and must fend for themselves. Some species will grow their young inside their bodies and give birth to live young, who also fend for themselves following birth.

Chameleon shedding skin
Shedding skin
Gorgeous coiled chameleon tail
Gorgeous coiled chameleon tail
Diet

Their diets consist of flying and crawling insects; which include butterflies, assorted insects, insect larvae, and snails.  Some larger chameleons eat small birds and smaller chameleons. They also may eat leaves, flowers, plants, and fruit. They all require water which they get from dew drops and rain.

Horned and crowned chameleon
Horned and crowned chameleon
Conservation status

Chameleon extinction threatens over 36% of the world’s chameleons, all due to human behaviour.

  • Habitat loss due to the increasing population requiring more land, agriculture requires more grazing land for livestock, coffee farmers, fruit and vegetable crops, chopping forests for wood fuel.
  • Illegal pet trade.

Wildlife parks are now being created to provide safe environments for chameleons to prevent species extinction.

All photos were taken at Réserve Peyrieras Madagascar Exotic Reserve, Marozevo, Madagascar. I can highly recommend a visit there.

Brilliant bright colours and markings
Brilliant bright colours and markings

References

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/08/chameleon-colors-reflect-their-emotions/

https://www.livescience.com/51061-chameleon.html

http://www.pbs.org/edens/madagascar/creature3.htm

https://www.wildmadagascar.org/wildlife/chameleons.html

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