Arxiu d'etiquetes: light

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.


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.

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.

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!


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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


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.

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


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.

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.

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.


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


How animals see the world?

Have you ever heard that dogs see in black and white? Or that cats can see in the dark? Why we have our eyes in front of the face? And why goats have an horizontal pupil? This article will answer these and other questions about the eyes and vision, focusing on mammals.


The eyes are the receptors responsible for capturing light and sending the signal through the optic nerve to the brain, which make the interpretation. Light is an electromagnetic wave as infrared, ultraviolet, X rays, microwaves, etc. In this post we will refer to visible light, that is, the part of the spectrum that can perceive humans and most mammals.

eye parts
Parts of the eye. Source

Basically, the light passes through the pupil. It can regulate the amount of light thanks to the muscles associated with iris (which gives color to the eye). The lens focuses the objects. The image is projected inverted in the retina, to be sent as an electrical signal to the brain.


In the retina there are two main types of photoreceptor cells: cons and rods. The main differences are:

  • More sensitive in a few light conditions
  • No color vision
  • Motion-sensitive
  • Less image detail
  • Activated under conditions of high light
  • Color vision
  • Contrast-sensitive
  • High image detail

That’s why in low light, vertebrates see in black and white and the image is not clear, since the rods are activated at maximum but the cones are inactive. Some primates have three different kinds of cones (trichromatic vision), which correspond to the red, green and blue colour (RGB). Some primates and other animals have monochromatic vision (they only have one type of cone) or dichromatic (two). Some animals have tetrachromic vision, like birds.

The cones are sensitive to different wavelengths, different colors. Photo taken from Colombian Primatological Association

Generalizing a lot, diurnal vertebrates have more cones than rods and nocturnal ones have more rods than cones, allowing them to see better in the dark. But they can really see in the dark?


In total absence of light it is impossible to see, although some animals can detect other radiation such as infrared (snakes) or ultraviolet (bees). In addition to the relation between rods and cones, other factors that improve vision in low light conditions are:


The bigger the eye and the cornea, the better use of light. The mammal with the greatest cornea in relation to the eye is the Philippine tarsier (Carlito syrichta ) a nightlife primate.

Philippines’ tarsier (photo: Yeo Kok Leng)


Another way to take advantadge of few light conditions is increasing the size of the pupil. According to the shape of it, the control of incoming light is more precise: it is the case of many cats. Compared with a round pupil, the elongated one opens and closes sideways and according to the position of the eyelid, pupil surface exposed to light can be controlled better.

The felines with vertical pupil can open it horizontally and control better the entry light than with a circular pupil. Image of an unknown author, adapted from Aquàrium-Liège Museum



Cats, dogs, bats, horses, whales, crocodiles, cattle and some nocturnal primates have in the retina or behind it a bright layer called tapetum lucidum, which increases up to 6 times the light gathering ability compared to humans. As if it were a mirror, the tapetum lucidum reflects the light reaching the eye to return back to the retina and harness light to the maximum.

Reflection of light due to the tapetum lucidum. Image taken from Exclusively cats

The tapetum lucidum is responsible for cat’s eyes appearing to glow in the dark and cat and dog’s pupils shine in blue/green when light falls upon the eye.

Tapetum lucidum shining on a dog. Photo Mireia Querol


The position of the eye in mammals can be frontal, like a cat, or in the side, like a rabbit. This means distinct advantages:

  • Binocular vision (stereoscopic): allows a good estimation of distance, but the field of view is smaller. A 3D image is generated. It is typical of carnivores that should focus attention to their prey or primates that should calculate the distance between the branches.
  • Side vision (peripheral): allows each eye to send a different signals to the brain, so it is easier to notice their surroundings having a field of view of about 360 degrees. It is typical of herbivores, which must pay attention to the presence of potential predators .

    Visual field of a cat and a horse. The blind area is smaller in hervibores. Source: Sjaastad, Sand and O. Hove K. Photo taken from Eye Opener


In addition to the position of the eyes, the shape of the pupil is also related if you are a predator or a prey. Goats or horses have horizontal pupils, while cats like the margay have it vertical.

Pupil of a goat (horizontal) and a cat (vertical) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Banks  says that “to calculate distances predators basis on stereoscopic vision (works better with a small pupil) and sharpness (works best with a larger one). Vertical pupils are small horizontally and large vertically”.

In the case of terrestrial prey attacked by predators, the tendency of the pupil is being horizontally because “can gather more light and and also reduces the sunlight, which could dazzle “. Exceptions such as rabbits or mice with a circular pupil, are because they have to pay attention also to the sky, from where a bird of prey can attack.


Some animals have the nictitating membrane (“third eyelid”), a transparent or translucent membrane that is used to protect and moisten the eye without losing visibility. Camels, seals and polar bears have it complete, whereas in other mammals, such as dogs or humans remains only reduced.

Nictitating membrane in a feline. Photo by Editor B


Actually dogs and cats are able to detect colors, particularly gray, yellow and blue in softer tones. Cats may be able to perceive more colours.

Visible spectrum by a dog and a human. Source

In the case of bulls, it is also spread the myth that rage against the red colour or see in black and white. Actually bulls have dichromatic vision, like most diurnal mammals, since they only have blue and green cones. Therefore, they can’t see red, but it does not mean they see in black and white.


Horses see in blue and red tones. Most rodents see in black and white. Most species of the family of goats, sheeps and bulls see from green to violet. In addition, recent studies indicate that many mammals (especially nocturnal ones), contrary to what was believed, also can perceive ultraviolet radiation: rats and mice, reindeer, possibly cats and dogs, cows, pigs, ferrets, okapi…

We finish with a BuzzFeed video with the simulation of vision of some animals. If you have more questions about animal’s vision leave it in the comments!


Socratea exorrhiza: plants also learn to walk!

This time I am going to present the plant that is becoming famous worldwide, the walking palm (Socratea exorrhiza). It has always been said that plants do not move from their place, but the nature surprises us once again with an example like this. Then, you can view more of this extraordinary plant.


The walking plant, Socratea exorrhiza, is a palm tree (Arecaceae) that lives in the rainforest of Centre and South America. It can reach to 25 meters of height and 16 centimetres of diameter, but it is usually around 15-20 meters of height.

Socratea exorrhiza, walking palm
The walking palm at los Puentes Colgantes near Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica (Photo taken by Hans Hillewaert).

Along with the orchids and other herbs, palm trees are the most abundant plants in tropical forests. But the palms are very curious as they have arboreal morphology: tree height and measures. But, no truly secondary growth is developed, i.e., they haven’t tissues for the increase in thickness of the roots, stems and branches. This means that, if the plant grows in height, it has to be a mechanism that can support its own weight. And we know that is not due to the thickness of the stem, which is pretty slim. So, what is the mechanism? And how does it work?


Many arborescent palms, i.e., that are not trees but similar, develop a set of aerial roots. These are characterized by being located above ground level. This is the case of the Walking palm (Socratea exorrhiza) and other palms (such Iriartea deltoidea). Stilt roots are generally very numerous and high.

Socratea exorriza
Stilt roots (Photo taken by Ruestz).


The functions performed by these roots have been and are still a debate. Still, it has been proposed that they can provide different benefits.

First, their presence allows greater stability and support of the stem, which can grow faster. This is very interesting, because in tropical forests light is a very powerful limiting factor. And the fact that the plant can reach higher heights, spending less energy in developing a thick trunk or underground roots that stabilize, makes this specie more competitive. But, while providing stability, it has not been shown to result in an advantage to grow in slope.

On the other hand, it is also thought that roots let colonize (expand to) new places that contain many large organic wastes, generally branches or dead trunks of other trees. This is because the roots can avoid them by moving over them.

In addition, it has been found that the stilt roots increase the plants’ survival when tropical storms are violent (as explained in the next section) and also facilitate their own aeration when floods occur. Still, it has not been confirmed that they allow the palm to grow in marshy places.

Although it has been begun to possess an extensive knowledge, all functions of these very singular roots of palm trees are still unknown. Even so, it should be mentioned another function discovered on the Walking palm, which is precisely what allows the plant to “walk”.


Socratea exorrhiza is known as the Walking palm and this is because it can change its position for two reasons. Although the second, presented below, is what gives rise to its common name.

The first, known since more time ago, it is quite common due to strong tropical storms. It’s caused when the palm is in normal position (phase 1 of the image) and then is knocked down by another tree or branch and it’s flattened (phase 2 of the image). Once above the soil, the palm has the ability to regrow and recover, thanks to the development of new stilt roots on the old stem; while the old stilt roots die (phase 3 of the image). Finally, the organism grows again, but having changed its place (phase 4 of the image). Therefore, the palm can survive even when it’s lying over the ground and still can recover itself.

Socratea exorrhiza  diagram
Smartse – Bodley, John; Foley C. Benson (March 1980). Stilt-Root Walking by an Iriateoid Palm in the Peruvian Amazon. Biotropica (jstor: The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation) 12 (1): 67-71

The second case has been discovered more recently and it is the reason why this plant has become popular nowadays. It is believed that its roots grow towards areas where there is more light; while on the other side, the roots die. So, the stem changes its place very slowly, but each year the displacement can reach up to 1 meter.

Simon Hart’s explicative video (Youtube Channel: Harold Eduarte).

As you have seen, plants never cease to amaze. Reaching as curious cases like this. Remember, if you liked it, please don’t forget to share in different social networks. Thank you.


  • Notes of Forest Ecology, Degree of Environmental Biology, UAB.
  • Avalos, Gerardo; Salazar, Diego; and Araya, Ana (2005). Stilt root structure in the neotropical palmsIrlartea deltoidea and Socratea exorrhiza. Biotropica 37 (1): 44–53.
  • Avalos, Gerardo and Fernández Otárola, Mauricio (2010). Allometry and stilt root structure of the neotropical palm Euterpe precatoria (Arecaceae) acroos sites and successional stages. Ametican Joranl of Botany 97 (3): 388-394.
  • Goldsmith, Gregory; and Zahawi, Rakan (September–December 2007).The function of stilt roots in the growth strategy of Socratea exorrhiza (Arecaceae) at two neotropical sites. Revista de Biologia Tropical 55 (3–4): 787–793.
  • Zotz, G.; Vollrath, B. (2003).The epiphyte vegetation of the palm Socratea exorrhiza – correlations with tree size, tree age and bryophyte cover. Journal of Tropical Ecology 19

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