Colour change in chamaleons: an emotional rainbow

Many people consider chameleons to be the masters of camouflage. Their ability to change colour leads us to believe that these animals have evolved to blend in with their surroundings and to trick their predators. But, what would you think if I told you that camouflage isn’t the main reason for colour shifts in chameleons? In this new entry, apart from explaining how chameleons change their coloration, we’ll show you how these cryptic animals use colour change for a wide array of reasons.

MYTHS ABOUT CHAMELEONS

Chameleons (Chamaeleonidae family) are extremely cryptic lizards, as their coloration is usually very similar to that of their habitat’s. Also, many chameleon species present the ability to actively shift their colours, making their camouflage even more complex.

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Usambara soft-horned chameleon female (Kinyongia tenuis) displaying striking colouring. Photo by Keultjes.

There is much misunderstanding regarding chameleons’ colour changing abilities. Here you have some refuted myths about chameleons:

  • The different chameleon species can only change into a limited range of colours.
  • Chameleons do not change their coloration rapidly, as they do it subtly. If they did, they would be much easier to spot by their predators.
  • Chameleons don’t change their colours depending on what they are touching but, as we’ll see below, their reasons are much more complex.

Video from Viralweek which gives a wrong idea about how a veiled chameleon changes its colours (Chamaeleo calyptratus).

But, how do chameleons change their colours? Many other animals, like cephalopods and some fish and lizards, also have the capacity to shift colours. In most cases it is achieved using chromatophores, a type of pigmentary cell found on ectothermic animals. In colour-changing animals, chromatophores are distributed in multiple layers and have the ability to contract, expand, aggregate or disperse, causing different colour variations.

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Detail of a cuttlefish chromatophores, by Minette Layne. Depending on whether they contract or expand, different colours can be appreciated.

For a long time it was thought that chameleons changed their colours using only their chromatophores. But a recent study showed that chameleons bring colour change to the extreme. This study was being conducted by a team of biologists and physicists when they noticed something special: chameleons do not present any green pigment in their skin!

PIGMENTS AND CRYSTALS

In order to explain how chameleons change colours, first we must distinguish between two different kinds of coloration in animals: pigmentary and structural colour. Pigmentary colour is the commonest, as it’s the one that an organism presents due to pigments present in their tissues (such as melanin in human skin). Instead, as we explained in a former article, structural colour is generated by the refraction of light with some skin microstructures.

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Image of an upside down beetle in which various structural colours can be seen. Photo by David López.

And what happens with chameleons? Well, it’s a combination of both mechanisms. Chameleons present black, red and yellow chromatophores, which they can contract and expand voluntarily. Also, in a study conducted with panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis), it’s been proved that they also present two layers of guanine nanocrystal-bearing cells, called iridiophores, which reflect light. Then a chameleon’s green coloration is acquired by the blue light reflected by the iridiophores that goes through the outer yellow chromatophores.

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Scheme of a chameleon’s skin section in which the iridiophores (blue) with nanocrystal layers and the different kinds of chromatophores can be seen; xanthophores (yellow), erythrophores (red) and melanophores (black). Image by David López.

Chameleons also present a series of neural circuits that allow them to control de composition and the distance between the iridiophores’ nanocrystals in different parts of their skin. This allows them to control the wavelength of the light reflected by the iridiophores and so, the colour. Combined with the chromatophores, the different chameleon species can cover most of the visible spectrum of colours.

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Differences in the colouring of a panther chameleon when it’s relaxed and excited, and its relation with the composition and distribution of the iridiophore nanocrystals. Image extracte from Teyssier & Saenko.

CHANGING COLOURS FOR WHAT?

Even if there are other squamosal species that can shift colours, this usually is because of a physiological response to thermoregulation, excitement or changes related to reproduction. Chameleons, also have an important part of their nervous system dedicated to changing colour rapidly, consciously and reversibly. They can even change different skin regions to different colours and, while one region becomes more orange or red, another one becomes more bluish or whitish, creating pretty striking colour effects and contrasts.

But then, why do chameleons change their colours? Well, the truth is that the kaleidoscopic abilities of these lizards have different functions, varying among the different species.

CAMOUFLAGE

The most obvious motive (even if not the most important) is camouflage. Even if the standard coloration of most chameleon species is cryptic enough, in case of necessity chameleons are able to blend in even more with their surroundings. This helps them not to be detected by their prey, but mainly to go unnoticed by their predators.

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Mediterranean chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) perfectly blending in with its surrounding. Photo by Javier Ábalos Álvarez.

Also, in a study conducted with Smith’s dwarf chameleons (Bradypodion taeniabronchum), is was proved that these were able to adjust the degree of their colour shifts to the visual capacities of their predators. Birds and snakes both feed on chameleons but, while the former have a great perception of shapes and colours, the latter doesn’t have such a sharp vision. It’s seen that Smith’s dwarf chameleons show more convincing colour changes when faced with a predator bird, than they do when faced with a snake.

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Photos of a Smith’s dwarf chameleon blending in when facing two decoy predators, a shrike and a mamba. Photo by Devi Stuart-Fox.

THERMOREGULATION

Chameleons are ectothermic and, like most reptiles, depend on external sources of heat. Apart from the more superficial iridiophores (called S-iridiophores), chameleons have a deeper layer of iridiophores called D-iridiophores, which (even if they present a much messier nanocrystal structure that cannot be modified) highly reflect infrared light, and it is thought that they must have some thermoregulation-related function. Many other lizards also present an iridiophore layer similar to D-iridiophores.

Apart from D-iridiophores, chameleons also shift to darker or lighter colours in order to regulate their body temperature. This becomes more apparent in species that live in habitats with more extreme climates. As we explained in an earlier entry, the Namaqua chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis), which inhabits deserts in south-western Africa, presents an almost black colour during the early morning hours, in order to absorb the maximum heat, while during the hottest hours it shows a whitish coloration, in order to reflect the maximum solar radiation.

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Two different coloration patterns in a Namaqua chameleon, a lighter one (photo by Hans Stieglitz) and a darker one (photo by Laika ac).

COMMUNICATION

The main function of chameleons colour change is intraspecific communication. Chameleons use different colour patterns known as liveries in some countries, which are changed in order to transmit information to other individuals of their same species like their stress degree, their reproductive or health status, etc… A chameleon’s standard coloration is usually similar to that of their habitat. So, this colour pattern usually indicates a healthy animal, while if they feel sick or have some physical problem, they usually present paler and duller colorations.

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Dominance and submission patterns on three dwarf chameleon species (Bradypodion sp.) Image from Adnan Moussalli & Devi Stuart-Fox.

In many species, females present more conspicuous and contrasted patterns when they are in heat, while they show a darker coloration after mating. When seeing these signals, males know which females are available and with which females they should better save their energy. Males also present more eye-catching patterns during the mating season, in order to indicate their intentions to females and to warn their rivals.

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Female carpet chameleon (Furcifer lateralis) with a pattern that indicates that it’s already pregnant and that it has no interest in mating. Photo by Bernard Dupont.

Finally, outside mating season, all chameleons use their boldest colours during their encounters with rivals of their same species. It’s in these situations when chameleons show the most contrasted patterns, apart from inflating and looking bigger and more aggressive, in order to scare off their rivals.

Video of a panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) acting aggressively when presented with a “rival”. Video from The White Mike Posner.

As we’ve just seen, the variety of colorations among the distinct chameleon species is huge. Yet, their incredible abilities haven’t saved chameleons from being on the endangered species list, as many of them are in danger of extinction, mainly because of the destruction of their habitat due to the logging industry and because of poaching for the illegal exotic animal trade. We hope that with a better awareness of these spectacular and colourful lizards, future generations can still delight with chameleon colour shifts for a long time.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted during the elaboration of this entry:

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