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What big lizard changes colour?

Reptiles are known for their ability to change their skin colour and blend into their surroundings. This helps them evade predators and ambush prey. But what reptile is best known for its colour-changing abilities? The chameleon!

What is a chameleon?

Chameleons are a type of lizard found in Africa, southern Europe, and southern Asia. There are over 160 species of chameleon, ranging greatly in size and colour. The largest species can grow up to 69cm long, while the smallest species are just over 10cm. All chameleons have several common features:

  • Bulging, independently moving eyes that can rotate and focus separately to watch for prey and predators
  • A long, sticky tongue that can extend quickly to capture prey
  • Grasping hands and feet to hold tightly to branches
  • A prehensile tail that wraps around branches for balance
  • A crest or horns on the head
  • A laterally compressed body well-suited for living in trees

But the characteristic chameleons are best known for is their remarkable ability to change colour!

How does a chameleon change colour?

Chameleons can change colour through active camouflage and for social signaling, such as mating displays. The colour change is made possible by specialized pigment cells called chromatophores that are located in the chameleon’s skin.

There are several different types of chromatophores:

  • Xanthophores and erythrophores – contain yellow or red pigments
  • Iridophores – reflect light using plates of crystalline guanine, producing blue, green, or gold tones
  • Melanophores – contain black or brown pigment

By selectively expanding and retracting these chromatophores, chameleons can alter their skin coloration. When the chromatophores are close together, the colours mix to create new hues. Melanophore cells also provide darker pigment in patterns that help the chameleon match its surroundings.

This colour change is controlled by hormones and regulated by inputs from the visual system. Chameleons essentially photograph their surroundings and then use neural signals to activate the chromatophore changes needed for camouflage.

Why do chameleons change colour?

The main functions of colour change in chameleons are:

  • Camouflage – Matching the environment allows chameleons to hide from predators and sneak up on prey.
  • Thermoregulation – Darker colours help absorb heat, while lighter colours reflect heat.
  • Communication – Signals conveying territoriality, aggression, mating readiness, and other social cues.


The ability to change colour for camouflage is likely the thing chameleons are best known for. As specialized tree-dwelling lizards, chameleons have evolved adaptations to help them blend into foliage, bark, rocks, moss, and other surroundings.

Their independently moving eyes allow them to view a full 360 degrees of their habitat. As they survey the colours and patterns around them, neurological signals initiate shifts in chromatophore distribution that cause the chameleon’s skin to match what it sees. This helps the chameleon remain unseen by predators and prey.


Changing colour also aids chameleons in regulating their body temperature. Darker pigmentation allows chameleons to absorb heat from sunlight, while lighter pigmentation reflects sunlight to prevent overheating.

Some examples of thermoregulatory colour change include:

  • Turning black to absorb heat in the morning
  • Reflecting bright yellows and greens during the hottest parts of the day
  • Becoming darker again in the evening when temperatures drop

This helps chameleons maintain an optimal temperature throughout day-night cycles and weather changes.


Chameleons also use colour changes to communicate with each other. Different coloration patterns can signal territoriality, aggression, receptiveness to mating, and other information.

For example, male chameleons may turn bright colours when defending a territory or courting a female. Females signal receptiveness by displaying certain patterning. And young chameleons adopt darker, camouflaged tones to avoid attracting unwanted attention from adults.

Amazing colour change abilities

So in summary, chameleons are reptiles uniquely adapted to change their skin colour rapidly for camouflage, thermoregulation, and communication. This ability depends on skin cells called chromatophores that contain pigments and reflective plates that can be arranged to produce different hues.

While many reptiles can gradually change their overall coloration for camouflage, chameleons stand out for their quick colour changing abilities. They can shift through a wide spectrum of colours and patterns to disappear against any background.

A few key facts about chameleon colour change:

  • Can cycle through the entire colour spectrum within seconds
  • Use camouflage patterns like stripes, spots, and freckles
  • Each eye moves and focuses independently to scan surroundings
  • Change colour multiple times per day as temperatures shift
  • Use bright colours for social signaling between individuals

This incredible adaptation makes the chameleon a uniquely talented lizard. Their distinctive abilities have rightfully earned them reputations as masters of disguise and colour change in the animal kingdom!

Other colour changing reptiles

While chameleons are the most famous colour changers, some other reptiles have more limited abilities to alter their hues:

Bearded dragons

Bearded dragons can slowly change from light to dark colours to regulate temperature. They also use postures and slight colour shifts to communicate.

Flying dragons

These agamid lizards of Southeast Asia can rapidly shift between brown and bright green. Their colour change is not as advanced as chameleons.

Flat-tailed horned lizard

Native to North America, these lizards can vary between pale and dark brown, likely used as camouflage in the desert.

Panther chameleons

Perhaps the closest rival to other chameleons, panther chameleons have remarkable camouflage abilities. They can create complex patterns by layering colours and spots.

Bearded pygmy chameleon

This African species can quickly cycle through green, tan, yellow, and brown colours to match its surroundings.

Quick colour changing facts

To summarize some key points about chameleons and colour change:

  • Specialized cells called chromatophores allow chameleons to change colour
  • Colour change is used for camouflage, thermoregulation, and communication
  • Chameleons have incredible abilities to shift colours and patterns rapidly
  • Other colour changing reptiles include certain lizards and agamids
  • No reptile can match the speed and diversity of chameleon colour shifts

So if you see a reptile quickly cycling through a rainbow of colours, chances are it’s a chameleon showing off its incredible talent! Their distinctive colour changing abilities make them masters of disguise in the natural world.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do chameleons change color so quickly?

Chameleons change color rapidly thanks to specialized skin cells called chromatophores. These contain pigments and reflective plates that can be quickly rearranged to change the skin’s coloration. Chameleons also have a visual system that scans their surroundings and initiates neural signals to adapt the chromatophore pattern for camouflage.

What is the benefit of changing color for chameleons?

The main benefits are camouflage, thermoregulation, and communication. Camouflage allows chameleons to hide from predators and prey. Changing to darker or lighter colors helps regulate body temperature. Bright colors are used for mating displays, signaling aggression or territory, and other social communication.

How many colors can a chameleon change into?

Chameleons can shift through the entire color spectrum and produce complex patterns by combining colors and layering pigments. They can recreate many different hues, tints, and patterns to match their surroundings. Some estimates suggest chameleons can display over 300 different color combinations!

What determines the color a chameleon will turn?

The main factors determining a chameleon’s color change are the environment, temperature, time of day, mood, and communication needs. Chameleons survey their surroundings and shift to colors and patterns that provide the best camouflage. Changes are also made to regulate temperature and for social signaling.

How long does it take a chameleon to change colors?

Chameleons can shift colors in seconds, far faster than any other reptile. Some sources estimate they can change from one color pattern to another complete different one in as little as 15-30 seconds. The speed helps make their camouflage more effective compared to slower-changing reptiles.


Chameleons stand out among reptiles for their remarkable color-changing abilities. Using specialized cells called chromatophores, they can swiftly shift through a diverse spectrum of colors and patterns to disappear against any background. While other lizards and reptiles have more limited color-changing talents, none can match the speed and diversity of the chameleon. Their distinctive adaptations make them masters of disguise in nature!