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What do you call lizards that change color?

What do you call lizards that change color?

Lizards that can change color are fascinating creatures. Their color changing abilities allow them to camouflage, regulate body temperature, and communicate. So what exactly do you call lizards that can change color? There are a few common terms used to describe these remarkable reptiles.


The most well known color changing lizards are chameleons. Chameleons are famous for their distinctive ability to change color. They can alter their appearance to blend in with their surroundings as a form of camouflage. When a chameleon feels threatened or excited, its skin cells contain special pigment cells called chromatophores that allow it to rapidly change colors.

There are over 160 species of chameleons that come in a spectacular array of colors. Some species like the panther chameleon have more limited color ranges while others like the parson’s chameleon have a wide spectrum of over 20 colors they can shift between. Chameleons primarily change colors for camouflage purposes but they can also darken as a means of absorbing more heat or lighten as a mood indicator.

So if you see a color changing lizard, “chameleon” is the correct term to use. Key identifying features of chameleons include their zygodactylous feet, prehensile tails, protruding eyes that can move independently, and long sticky tongues. Chameleons belong to the family Chamaeleonidae and can be found throughout Africa, Southern Europe, and Southern Asia.


Another type of color changing lizard is the anole (pronounced uh-no-lee). Anoles are small lizards belonging to the Dactyloidae family. There are over 400 species of anoles, many of which have the ability to change color.

Anoles are native to the Americas and are sometimes referred to as “American chameleons” due to their color morphing abilities. However, they are not closely related to true chameleons. Some key features distinguishing anoles from chameleons include their different feet structure, lack of prehensile tails, and inability to move their eyes independently.

Like chameleons, anoles can change their coloration for camouflage and temperature regulation. However, anoles have a more limited color range. Most species shift between brown, green, and gray only. The color change happens more slowly in anoles compared to chameleons. Anoles have three layers of chromatophore cells that allow them to alter skin color.

So if you see a color changing lizard in the Americas, “anole” is the right name to use. There are many different species of anoles including the green anole, brown anole, and knight anole. Anoles are generally smaller, thinner, and faster moving than chameleons.

Other Color Changing Lizards

While chameleons and anoles are the best known, there are a number of other lizards that can shift color:

Species Color Change Abilities
Bearded dragons Can change from light to dark colors to regulate temperature
Blue spiny lizards Males turn blue during mating periods
Komodo dragons Hatchlings have ability to change colors that fades with age
Plated lizards Change colors during courtship and territorial displays
Texas spiny lizards Shift between green and brown for camouflage
Thorny devils Ability to slightly alter skin colors

As you can see, a variety of lizard species have some capacity for color change. However, chameleons and anoles exhibit this on a much larger scale and use it for more complex functions like communication and camouflage.

Mechanisms of Color Change

How exactly do chameleons, anoles, and other color shifting lizards physically change their color? These lizards have specialized cells called chromatophores that allow them to undergo rapid color changes:

Melanophores: Contain black and brown melanin pigment granules. Dispersing melanin towards the skin surface darkens skin color. Aggregating melanin into the cell center lightens skin color.

Xanthophores and erythrophores: Contain yellow and red pigment granules respectively. Dispersion of the pigment makes the skin yellowish or reddish. Aggregation removes these colors.

Iridophores and leucophores: Reflective cells that create iridescent blue, green, silvery, or white appearances.

Guanophores: Contain guanine crystals that reflect blue and green light. Distribution of these crystals can help produce an overall green or bluish effect.

These chromatophores are found in layers beneath the lizard’s transparent outer scales. By dispersing and aggregating the various pigments and guanine crystals, the cells can mix together to create diverse colors and patterns across the lizard’s skin.

Muscle contractions initiate changes in the cell shapes to disperse or aggregate pigments. Hormones like adrenaline also facilitate color shifts. The lizard’s brain sends signals to the skin based on temperature, mood, environment, etc. to produce appropriate color changes.

Uses of Color Change

What causes lizards like chameleons and anoles to change colors? There are several key functions driving their color morphing abilities:

Camouflage: Blending in with the environment to avoid predators and sneak up on prey. Chameleons and anoles shift to match the color and pattern of their surroundings.

Temperature Regulation: Dark colors absorb heat while light colors deflect it. Lizards change between dark and light colors to regulate their body temperature.

Communication: Bright colors are used to attract mates or warn off competing males. Dark patterns signal aggression and stress.

Mood Indicator: Lighter, brighter colors can reflect positive moods and arousal while darker muted tones signal fear, stress, or illness.

So in summary, lizards change colors primarily for camouflage, thermoregulation, visual signals, and reflecting internal state. Their color changing abilities give them a functional evolutionary advantage for survival.

Rapid Color Change Mechanisms

Chameleons and anoles are notable for the speed at which they can change colors. How are they able to shift their entire appearance within seconds?

Skin Layering: The pigment containing chromatophore cells are positioned superficially just under the transparent outer skin layers. This allows rapid visible changes.

Muscle Control: Voluntary muscle contractions can instantly redistribute pigments by expanding and retracting the chromatophore cells.

Hormone Release: Signals from the brain trigger hormones like adrenaline to disperse or aggregate pigments quickly.

Reflective Cells: Iridophores containing guanine nanocrystals can change reflective properties rapidly by adjusting the distance between crystals. This contributes to quick color changes.

The combination of skin organization, muscle control, and pigment hormones allows chameleons and anoles to shift colors faster than other reptiles. These mechanisms produce nearly instantaneous visible changes to match the environment, attract mates, warn off threats, and regulate temperature.

Color Changing Lizards as Pets

Due to their stunning color changing abilities, chameleons and anoles are sometimes kept as exotic pets. Here are some key considerations if you are thinking about getting a color changing lizard:

– Housing: Reptariums or screened enclosures work best to allow air flow. Include branches, foliage, and hiding spots.

– Lighting: Requires specialized UVB and heated lamps to mimic natural habitat.

– Humidity & Temperature: Mist regularly and maintain appropriate gradients.

– Substrate: Reptile carpet or coarse bark substrates help prevent impaction.

– Food: Live insects like crickets, mealworms, flies. Dust food with calcium and vitamin D3.

– Handling: Chameleons and anoles are easily stressed. Limit handling.

Make sure to thoroughly research the specific species’ needs. Provide a habitat that allows them to display their gorgeous color changing abilities. With good care, these intriguing lizards can make fascinating pets.


In summary, lizards with color changing capabilities are generally referred to as chameleons and anoles. Chameleons belong to the Chamaeleonidae family and originate from Africa, Europe, and Asia. Anoles are members of the Dactyloidae family from the Americas. These lizards can rapidly alter their skin coloration for purposes like camouflage, heat regulation, communication, and expressing mood. Their specialized chromatophore skin cells allow them to shift between different hues by dispersing and aggregating various pigment granules. While many lizards have some ability to change colors, chameleons and anoles exhibit this on a much more extensive scale and at faster speeds. Their remarkable color changing mechanisms make them extremely well equipped for functions like deception, attracting mates, avoiding threat, and thermal regulation. With proper care requirements met, chameleons and anoles can make intriguing exotic pets. Just be sure to call them by their proper names and appreciate the fascinating processes behind their color morphing abilities!