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General information

Chameleons are old-world, arboreal lizards best known for their incredible morphological adaptations. Among the characteristics which distinguish them from other lizards are their independently moving eyes, their modified feet and their incredible tongues.

Chameleons have binocular vision, like many vertebrates including humans, but have the capacity to move their eyes independently in order to view nearly a 360o arc around their bodies. When they search for prey, they rotate the two eyes in different directions. Once a suitable prey item is located, they fix both eyes on the object in order to gauge distance. There is some indication, from a 1995 paper in Nature, that chameleons may in fact be capable of judging distance not only with their bifocal vision, but also through the principle of negative refraction, making them unique among other vertebrates.

Chameleons have modified feet, giving the appearance of having two toes. In fact, like most lizards, they have in fact five toes on each foot, but these toes have been fused together to create two pads which are better able to grasp branches and twigs. On their front feet, two toes have fused to make the exterior pad, and the other three have fused to create the interior pad. Interestingly enough, this pattern is reversed in the hind feet.

Chameleons have long tongues with a sticky extremity, used to capture prey at a distance and then reel them back to the mouth. The tongue makes their 'sit-and-wait' predatory strategy highly effective. They can often reach prey items with great accuracy up to a distance of two to three body lengths (eg. a 15 cm chameleon may be able to strike prey as far as 40 cm away). Pressure is built by muscle action in the buccal cavity prior to a strike, such that the tongue can be projected forward with great speed. The tongue of a chameleon also contains specialized fibres permitting the animal to contract the extended tongue at great speed.

The chameleons have interesting heads, with a gular pouch under the lower mandible. Some species also have a gular crest (at the joint of the skull and vertebrae), particularly pronounced in the veiled chameleon, where the male may have a crest as high as his head is long.

Several species have between one and three horns adorning the head. There are in fact four kinds of horny protruberances found in the various species. First, the true horn, is a long and narrow bony protruberance jutting from the center of the forehead. Second, there are sometimes secondary bony protruberances of much smaller size. Third, some species have fleshy protruberances as opposed to bony ones. Finally, there are at times intermediary forms which fit between the false (second type) and fleshy horns.

Behaviour

Chameleons are generally solitary animals who move very slowly. As such, they rely on their ability to change their colouration and pattern to remain cryptic. This has the benefit of making them hard to detect for predators and prey alike. Chameleons generally adopt a stationary position in a tree (some species are terrestrial, but the same principle applies) and wait for a prey item to appear within their visual field. When the chameleon decides to move, they do so very slowly, rocking back and forth so as to blend in with the motion of leaves around them (as an interesting aside, this same behaviour is used by many insect species to avoid detection).

One of the most interesting features about chameleon behaviour surely must be their propensity and capacity for colour change. Chameleons can change colour using the chromatophores in their skin. Of considerable interest to ethologists is the observation that chameleons regularly change both their colours and patterns in nature in a manner seemingly unrelated to camouflage. It is believed that chameleons communicate with one another using these colour changes. One of the most brilliant sights in nature is apparently the mating season of the Panther chameleon, where males and females alike will attract each other and defend their territories with spectacular displays of green, yellow, red, blue and orange.

Finally, the veiled chameleon displays a behaviour quite unusual for reptiles. After the eggs hatch and the tiny neonates emerge, they climb on to the male and use his gular crest as a shelter. The male also uses this appendage to collect rainwater for consumption.

Taxonomic information Order: Squamata
Family: Chamaeleonidae
Genera:

A detailed list of species can be found at the end of this write-up, but here is a general description of the eight genera in the family Chamaeleonidae.

The genus Bradypodion are characterized by small bodied individuals with prehensile tails. They are found in southern Africa, and are all ovoviviparous.

The genus Brookesia, commonly referred to as the leaf chameleons, are extremely small-bodied chameleons found exclusively in Madagascar. They do not have prehensile tails, and are oviparous. They are also unusual members of the family given their terrestrial life-style.

The genus Calumma contains species of variable size again found exclusively in Madagascar. They are arboreal, have prehensile tails, and are oviparous. Parson's chameleon (C. parsonii) was once imported in great numbers into North America for the pet trade, and is among the most striking and colourful of all chameleon species.

The genus Chamaeleo consist of generally larger bodied individuals, and contains the best-known species to the general public (Veiled chameleon (C. calyptratus) and Jackson's chameleon (C. jacksonii)). The genus can be found throughout Africa. They are almost exclusively arboreal, have prehensile tails and are both ovoviviparous and oviparous.

The genus Chamaeleolis is restricted to Cuba, and are commonly referred to as crested anoles. These arboreal lizards lack prehensile tails and are oviparous.

The one species of the genus Chamaelinorops are restricted to Haiti. This species is also arboreal and lacking a prehensile tail.

The genus Furcifer is again a Malagasy genus containing oviparous, arboreal species with prehensile tails. The best known member of this genus is the panther chameleon (F. pardalis), which is a large specimen with incredible colouration.

The genus Rhampholeon consists of small-bodied terrestrial individuals. They are restricted to Africa, and are all oviparous.

Species list

Genera:

  • Bradypodion
    Species:
    • adolfifriderici
    • caffrum
    • damaranum
    • dracomontanum
    • excubitor
    • fischeri
    • gutturale
    • karrooicum
    • melanocephalum
    • mlanjense
    • nemorale
    • occidentale
    • oxyrhinum
    • pumilum
    • setaroi
    • spinosum
    • taeniabronchum
    • tavetanum
    • tenue
    • thamnobates
    • transvaalense
    • uthmoelleri
    • ventrale
    • xenorhinum
  • Brookesia
    Species:
    • ambreensis
    • antakarana
    • bekolosy
    • betschi
    • bonsi
    • brevicauda
    • brygooi
    • decaryi
    • dentata
    • ebenaui
    • exarmata
    • griveaudi
    • karchei
    • lambertoni
    • lineata
    • lolontany
    • minima
    • nasus
    • perarmeta
    • peyrierasi
    • spectrum
    • stumpfi
    • superciliaris
    • therezieni
    • thieli
    • vadoni
    • valerieae
  • Calumma
    Species:
    • boettgeri
    • brevicornis
    • capuroni
    • cucculata
    • fallax
    • furcifer
    • gallus
    • gastrotaenia
    • globifer
    • guibei
    • hilleniusi
    • linota
    • malthe
    • nasuta
    • oshaughnessyi
    • parsonii
    • peyrierasi
    • tigris
    • tsaratananensis
  • Chamaeleo
    Species
    • affinis
    • africanus
    • anchietae
    • arabicus
    • bitaeniatus
    • brevicornis
    • calcaricarens
    • calyptratus
    • camerunensis
    • chamaeleon
    • chapini
    • cristatus
    • deremensis
    • dilepis
    • eisentrauti
    • ellioti
    • etiennei
    • feae
    • fischeri
    • fuelleborni
    • goetzei
    • gracilis
    • harennae
    • hoehneli
    • incornutus
    • ituriensis
    • jacksonii
    • johnstoni
    • kinetensis
    • laevigatus
    • laterispinis
    • marsabitensis
    • melleri
    • microsaura
    • monachus
    • montium
    • namaquensis
    • oustaleti
    • oweni
    • pardalis
    • parsoni
    • pfefferi
    • pumilus
    • quadricornis
    • quilensis
    • roperi
    • rudis
    • ruspolii
    • schoutedeni
    • schubotzi
    • senegalensis
    • sternfeldi
    • tempeli
    • tremperi
    • werneri
    • wiedersheimi
    • zeylanicus
  • Chamaeleolis1
    Species:
    • barbatus
    • chamaeleontides
    • guamuhaya
    • porcus
  • Chamaelinorops1
    Species:
    • barbouri
  • Furcifer
    Species:
    • angeli
    • antimena
    • balteatus
    • belalandaensis
    • bifidus
    • campani
    • cephalolepis
    • labordi
    • lateralis
    • minor
    • monoceras
    • oustaleti
    • pardalis
    • petteri
    • polleni
    • rhinoceratus
    • tutzetae
    • verrucosus
    • willsii
  • Rhampholeon
    Species:
    • boulengeri
    • brachyurus
    • brevicaudatus
    • chapmanorum
    • kerstenii
    • marshalli
    • nchisiensis
    • platyceps
    • spectrum
    • temporalis
    • uluguruensis
1 Some scientists place the genera Chamaeleolis and Chamaelinorops in the anole genus Anolis.
Information gathered from the following resources:
* http://cyclura.taxonomydata.com/order.php
* http://www.geocities.com/ccicenter
* http://bibliofile.mc.duke.edu/gww/Reptiles/Brookesia.html
* http://www.adcham.com
* http://156.99.114.200/abstracts/Reptilianew.asp
* http://www.chameleonjournals.com/ * http://www.animalarkshelter.org/cin/ ... and others too numerous to mention.

How do chameleons change color?

How/what?

Chameleons change color by manipulating the chromatophores in their sub-dermal layer. Each chromatophore contains one pigment, and a sphincter muscle. When contracted, the pigment is squeezed up into a flat region above the chromatophore, showing that pigment. As you can imagine, this works much like an RGB display; an animal can have only a few pigments, and make many different colors by combining them selectively. Chameleons have four different layers to their skin, in order of increasing depth: the protective epidermis, the chromatophore layer (which contains red and yellow pigments), the melanophore layer which can display brown or black pigments or reflect blue, and the nether layer, which is white. Any given color morph of a species of chameleon only has a few different patterns and color combinations in its palette.

So say the chameleon is frightened by a Boomslang or a Shrike (both predators of chameleons), a combination of hormone action and nerve impulses will selectively expand and contract some chromatophores of the chameleon into either a camouflage pattern or a bright pattern which often means "I taste bad" or "I'm poisonous" in the animal world. These transitions can take as little as a few seconds, and a viewer will see a gradual shift from one color pattern to the other.

Diagrams of Chromatophores:

Pigment showing:
  _____________
{______  ______}
          |  |
          |  | (Sphincter squeezing in this region)
          |  |
          |_|

Pigment hidden:
     _
    /  \
   /    \
  /      \
 |        |
  \____/

Why/when?

There is much contention over why chameleons change color, however. I've seen several claims that chameleons change color not based on camouflage but based on their mood, which seems patently ridiculous to me; what's the evolutionary selection pressure for a mood ring? What has been shown, however, is that several species of chameleon (including the Panther Chameleon (Chamaeleo Pardalis)) use their color changing abilities in communication with other chameleons; when two males confront each other, they will face off and have a color fight, changing colors rapidly and trying to intimidate the other away. When a chameleon is hurt, it will change into dark and complicated patterns. When a chameleon is cold, it will move into the sunlight and turn a dark color, to absorb the energy better. A chameleon can also use its color changing as a defense against predators, as noted above.

Color changing is used extensively in the courting rituals of some chameleons, so the selection pressure could be that it's a selection attribute for reproduction, so the chameleon that can change color the best gets the girl, and spreads his genes farther in the next generation. Since color is partly hormonally controlled, it could vary based on the chameleon's 'mood', in that hormone balances will be different in different situations, but I don't think it's proper to anthropomorphize human moods onto animals.

Who?

Cuttlefish, and some species of octopi and squid also exhibit chromatophoric color-changing.

Today I would like to talk to you about colours. But first I want to ask you a question. When does your hurricane season begin?

I have often wondered how we would lead our lives if our bodies were fundamentally different from how they are. We would not consider this alteration unusual because we would have grown up with it. It would be no cause for wonder or alarm. We would probably be as unsatisfied with our bodies as we are, even if we had superhuman powers. I imagine that Superman himself is thoroughly bored with his many superpowers, just as a bird feels no thrill at being able to swoop and glide through the air, just as a Galapagos tortoise is unexcited at the thought of spending one hundred and fifty years eating the spiny pads of the prickly pear. Boredom is not quite the same as dissatisfaction, for it is possible to be both content and bored. But boredom and dissatisfaction have the same consequence, and that is lust. Boredom generates lust because the neutral state of thoughtless man is one of sexual arousal. This is commonly accepted. Dissatisfaction generates a lust for satisfaction, either directly or indirectly, by feedbacking-ing on itself and creating a deeper dissatisfaction which eventually finds expression in self-destruction. It strikes me that the act of sexual congress would be intolerably unpleasant if it was not for lust. From a biological point of view, lust masks disgust. It is what compels monkeys to mount each other, when otherwise one monkey would never consider going near another monkey's bottom. But lust is also what drives Superman to fight crime and to combat intergalactic menaces such as General Zod, who in turn had a lust for pure power over the puny, pathetic people of the planet. Perhaps pleasure propels progress, and purity is a peripheral, pedestrian pollutant. Pleasure is a pleasant price to pay.

I wonder how human society would have evolved if our moods expressed themselves by changing the colour of our skin. To a certain extent we already possess this ability. Or rather, our blood possess this ability. We have no control over our blood. It is blood. We flush our skin with blood when we are angry. We engorge our lips and sexual organs with blood when we are desirous. We spit blood when we are frustrated. Blood retreats when we are scared. But blood does not move and pool and well up when we feel ennui or boredom, or unease, or when we are mildly annoyed at having been insulted by a passer-by. Rather than simply turning red with anger or white with fright, what would it be like if we could assume a wide range of subtle hues, like a chameleon or an alligator? We would no longer have to rely upon facial expressions and words in order to communicate. We would communicate with colours. The flip side of this is we would reveal our subtlest feelings to the world, even though we might not want to. What if our skin became Pantone 294 when we wanted to go to the toilet? I do not want the world to know that I feel the urge to urinate. For the majority of people I withhold that information because I do not want them to know about my intimate bodily processes. And for a very small number of people I withhold that information because I want it to be a surprise when it happens.

Professional poker players understand this, and mask the physical manifestation of their emotions and feelings. They practice in front of the mirror. Fleas bite them, and they do not react. They soil themselves invisibly. Air traffic controllers similarly cannot afford to break into a nervous sweat, or involuntarily punch the air with glee. They certainly cannot afford to urinate, and instead they learn to control their bladders, and to sweat through the soles of their feet. Actors have an even harder task, in that it is not enough for them to simply mask their feelings; they must express feelings which they do not feel. In my alternative world actors would have to master the art of changing their colour at will. Perhaps they could use several layers of wipe-clean makeup in order to change colour, swapping emotions as actors in the real world swap clothes.

This alternative human society would be even more conscious of colour than us. People would pay extra-special care when choosing clothes. Stewardesses and receptionists would wear clothes of a shade that expresses a general pleasantness. Entertainers would wear clothes that express manic excitement. Businessmen would wear clothes that express no emotion at all, and which would presumably be the neutral colour of that person's skin. Businessmen would therefore not wear black or grey suits, they would wear skin-coloured suits, because businessmen need to control their emotions in order to function in the world of business. If it is the case that naturally-coloured skin is unemotional, it might be that nudity would have less of an impact, or that we would concentrate more on a body's shape, or that adult film stars would have to modulate their colour just as male adult film stars in our world must learn to sustain an erection. It is a difficult task to sustain an erection, especially if one is surrounded by a film crew, or participating in a general election. Perhaps soldiers in this alternative society could camouflage themselves by thinking of whatever emotion causes skin to turn a swirling, random mixture of green and brown.

Our attitude towards colours would change. Our society associates turnips with blandness and uniformity, and with low-budget institutional food. At least when I was a child, the turnip was redolent of school dinners. In the event of a Communist takeover, turnips would become the staple diet. But suppose it was the case that turnips were the colour of love? Valentines cards would not feature stylised representations of hearts. They would instead feature stylised representations of turnips. And given that turnips are easier to buy and store than human hearts, it is likely that we would not send cards at all; we would send turnips, perhaps with a message carved into them. Or more practically we would tie a label to the turnip with a piece of string. And we would probably post miniature turnips made of plastic, because even turnips can go off in the post. Perhaps we would send chocolate turnips, by which I mean chocolates shaped like turnips. In a world where turnips were the vegetables of lust, perhaps pornography would make greater use of turnips than it does already. I will leave the details to your imagination. But first I must go onto the Internet to find out if turnips are vegetables or something else. I must think faster, and cram more thoughts into my sentences. It is good that I can type eighty words per minute. I wish I could dictate straight from my mind into the computer, because I think more than eighty thoughts in a minute, although it is also true that a single word can express several thoughts. The more ideas I have, the lower the quality, but it is easier to digest a large number of low-quality ideas than it is to digest one large idea, and it does not tax the kidneys so much. Mush. Mushy peas. Ed Muskie. Kidneys, purple. The Death of Klinghoffer.

There might be an issue whereby the colour of sickness or anger is present in a natural object that we nonetheless cannot avoid. If it was the case that the sight of water or of the sky made us want to flee, we would die. In our world, green is the colour of sickness and decay. But it is also the colour of grass. We find sickness and decay unpleasant, but conversely we find grass pleasant, indeed also erotic even too. Who amongst us has not fantasised about rolling naked in green grass, on a summer's day? If the grass was snot - which is also green, at least in comics - we would avoid it, but I believe that colour alone is of limited value as a means of determining our emotional response to our surroundings. Clearly we perceive grass as more than just the colour green. On the other hand, if we communicated with colours, and if colours played a much greater role in our lives, it might be the case that we would find grass to be unpleasant, just as we find the sound of a crying baby to be unelephant even though a sound cannot hurt us unless it is extremely loud. A crying baby cannot hurt us either. Some people find that clashing colours can bring on a migraine, and a migraine is painful, although we have to bear in mind the difference between vivid colours - which do not by themselves project light - and extreme luminosity, such as that of a computer monitor or a lightbulb. Nixon is no longer in China. As I write these words, he is in Brazil.

It is not the quality of light that causes physical pain. It is the strength of light. It is the strength that blinds and flays. And it is not the quality of an idea that pushes the world off its axis, it is the strength of an idea.

Cha*me"le*on (?), n. [L. Chamaeleon, Gr. , lit., "ground lion;" on the ground + lion. See Humble, and Lion.] Zool.

A lizardlike reptile of the genus Chamaeleo, of several species, found in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The skin is covered with fine granmulations; the tail is prehensile, and the body is much compressed laterally, giving it a high back.

⇒ Its color changes more or less with the color of the objects about it, or with its temper when disturbed. In a cool, dark place it is nearly white, or grayish; on admitting the light, it changes to brown, bottle-green, or blood red, of various shades, and more or less mottled in arrangment. The American chameleons belong to Anolis and allied genera of the family Iguanidae. They are more slender in form than the true chameleons, but have the same power of changing their colors.

Chameleon mineral Chem., the compound called potassium permanganate, a dark violet, crystalline substance, KMnO4, which in formation passes through a peculiar succession of color from green to blue, purple, red, etc. See Potassium permanganate, under Potassium.

 

© Webster 1913.

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