Chameleons

How Do Chameleons Change Color?

Of all the lizards in the animal kingdom, Chameleons are the most colorful, puzzling and mysterious.  But what are the mechanics behind how chameleons change color?  Do they do it to protect themselves from predators or do they have other reasons for shifting their chromatic states?  Are they nature’s mood ring?

A recent study from Geneva, Switzerland shows some surprising answers to these questions.  The chameleon’s ability to change colors goes beyond what many have believed and assumed for decades.  Yes, they do adjust to camouflage with their environment, but they have other reasons too and it’s a more nuanced process.

How Do Chameleons Change Color, The Mechanics?

The chameleon’s enigmatic ability to change its visible color is not like other animals, like octopi and squid, who camouflage their appearance.  Chameleon’s don’t make pigment dispensations into their skin cells.  They alter their chromatic visibility by making specific adjustments to special cells nestled deep within the skin. 

Color is Skin Deep

The upper layer of skin changes color by way of structural alterations in reflecting light.  This is more prevalent in males than juveniles or females.  They have two thick, superposed layers of iridescent skin cells that reflect light and contain pigment; called iridophore cells.

These iridophore cells have nanocrystals that vary in organization, shape and size.  This is the secret to the chameleon’s enchanting color metamorphoses.  They can transmute this arrangement through changes in the skin, either by relaxing or exciting them via the emotions.

Having a Thick Skin

But that’s not all that happens with a chameleon’s chromaticity.  The Geneva study also indicated that they have yet an even thicker and deeper layer of skin cells which give off a huge amount of near-infrared sunlight.  Although these don’t seem to change colors, it’s possible these deeper cells assist in reflecting or absorbing heat. 

For instance, males will get excited when a rival shows up or will relax when resting on a tree branch.  In a state of relaxation, the nanocrystals are close together and thus reflect colors from the range of short wavelengths like blue and green.

Upon excitation, a chameleon’s nanocrystals move further apart and display red, orange or yellow.  It’s not that these colors appear magically, but they definitely become brighter.  The panther chameleon is one species that has some of the most dramatic chromatic modifications.

How Do Chameleons Know What Color to Change to?

It’s not that chameleons are cognizant of their ability to change color, in that they think about it and the colors change.  Chameleon’s don’t “decide” to change it. It’s a natural and instinctual process that occurs depending on the situation and their emotions.  It’s likely their colors shift as a result of hormonal changes brought on by alterations in how they feel.

Only the Males Are Brightest

Plus, it’s usually just the males who change color.  It is rare for a female to change her colors in a very noticeable way.  The colors do change, but not to the same brightness or visible degree that a male’s colors shift.  This is true for juveniles as well.

Not only do they adjust color to match their surroundings, but chameleons will also brighten up their colors because they intend to become noticeable.  This most often happens when they want to rid the vicinity of a rival or to attract a female for breeding.

Juvenile Females

Juveniles and females aren’t as brilliant because they have reduced iridophore cells in the upper layer of skin.  This is what gives them a dull, muted appearance.  Regardless, chameleons have the ability to adjust the brightness or dullness of its colors to suit what’s going on in its environment and to accompany their mood.

Environmental Awareness

But, they do know their environments and are smart about being in a place that will make them stand out against the scenery.  It’s more like they know how their skin cells operate and put themselves in a place where they can thrive in safety.

What Does It Mean When Chameleons Change Color?

There are two general states in which chameleons change colors and each has its various meaning.  If you see a male turn into a bright array of hues, either they want to attract a female or they’re about to engage in competition for dominance. 

Male Dominance

Because males are territorial, they will battle each other with their ability to show off the strength of their hues.  This will be a wild display of rapid, explosive color shifts from red, orange, yellow and even white.  These colors stick out in a breathtaking view against the backdrop of a green, lush and dark forest. 

The weaker male will admit defeat by turning off his display, which indicates they no longer wish to fight.  Sometimes, male chameleons will undertake evasive maneuvers.  Some researchers observe that they will morph themselves into the semblance of a dull and colorless female to sneak by aggressive males.

Mating Indicators

But, the males also turn up the volume on their skin in order to attract a female for courtship and mating.  A female will show her lack of interest by rearranging her colors as a message to move on. 

If she’s already mated with another male, she will become very aggressive and dark, almost black.  This is because of the violent inclinations of males and it becomes necessary to avoid them.  But, if the female is available, she won’t change colors at all.  This is a sign of readiness and submission.

Regulating Body Temperature

It’s also possible that chameleons need to regulate their body temperature and use color changes to achieve this.  This possible reason is what some scientists feel is under studied.  Most lizards have this trait, where regulating body temperature is a necessary aspect to survival.

Because chameleons are ectotherms, they don’t retain their own heat generated by their body’s metabolism.  Rather, they have to use the sun and, thus, why it’s common for people to see lizards on rocks catching sunrays.

Still Only a Theory

Although not studied in a formal setting, some scientists have observed chameleons sunning themselves in the morning, when it’s coldest, while blending themselves into a rock or a flower stalk.  They stay dark to absorb the maximum amount of sun until they are warm enough.  

It’s likely that chameleons use their darker palettes to absorb light, especially when it’s colder.  They flood their skin cells with melanin to speed up the warming process.  But, chameleons are smart.  If the darker range will make them stand out in stark contrast to the environment, they won’t do this.

Do Chameleons Change Color To Match Their Environment?

Yes, Chameleons do change their colors to match their surrounding environment but it isn’t like how most people think.  For instance, some people think that if you put a chameleon on a checkerboard, they’ll turn the colors of the checkerboard.  This simply isn’t true; they can’t match their skin against just any background.

False Evidence and Portrayals

The videos online that show chameleons changing color according to different surfaces are all hoaxes.  Plus, Disney doesn’t help this belief, as evidenced in their cartoon, “Tangled,” featuring the chameleon named Pascal.  But, this doesn’t make their chromatic transformation any less amazing or multifaceted.

In fact, their natural skin tone already matches their environment.  Various species will differ greatly, some are brown and green and others are redder and bright green.  In other words, their color comes from wherever their natural habitat is.  But even in the wild, they can’t meld themselves into flowers or individual blades of grass.

Protective Purposes

They make small, miniscule adjustments to their coloring in order to blend into the foliage, bark and flora of their immediate environment.  They don’t become them, they covertly camouflage themselves.  Their color changing ability has a limited range of capacity, but they use this to match to their environment with amazing alacrity.

Because they change colors on instinct, they do blend in to protect themselves from predators too.  Anyone who has tried to spot one in the wild will tell you, they’re near impossible to find.  This is because they have no other defenses or means to safeguard from danger. 

Chromatic Change Is All They Have

They don’t have a venomous bite, sharp appendages or poisonous skin secretions.  All they have to rely on is their ability to change color.  But much of this melding in with their environment doesn’t involve color changing.  They already have the appearance of the branches and leaves of their habitat.

If a predator is around, they often just move to a safer location.  Under low-light situations deep within a forest, they will flood their skin cells with a blackish-brown pigment.  This melanin flood will make the chameleon look darker and more hidden.  It’s a similar concept to mixing paint; mixing black into blue will make the blue darker.

What Color Is a Happy Chameleon?

A chameleon that’s happy, relaxed and laid back will often reflect its natural coloring.  This usually ranges between a rich brown to a bright green, but these colors will depend on the species.  To know whether a chameleon is happy or not is more often signified by their behavior more than their color.

When you see a chameleon hanging out on a branch or a leaf taking a snooze, chances are, it’s happy. If a chameleon is hissing or nipping, it’s a definite sign of anger.  This often accompanies either a darkening of their color, as in the case of females, or a brightening of hues, as in the males.

Conclusion

The secret to a chameleon’s color-changing ability comes from the nanocrystals nestled in the upper layer of skin.  An even deeper layer of skin adds to this by their ability to absorb and reflect light.  These changes in shade and hue stem from how chameleons feel at the time they’re shifting.

If you’re lucky enough to witness such a thing, you’re observing a chameleon in an attempt to either be invisible or visible.  This behavior is instinctive to these obscure reptiles and will change colors in an effort to adjust to their environment, express their displeasure or broadcast their desire to mate.

Understanding the way a chameleons shifts its chromatic skin palette may even help the world of technology and innovation.  It could make reflection-free appliances or create more heat-efficient homes.  The possibilities to mimic the natural process of chameleons into practical applications are almost endless.

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