Why Do Chameleons Change Color?

Have you ever wondered why chameleons change color? We think it’s fascinating that these little lizards possess this ability and we wanted to shed a little light on the “why” behind this unique behavior.

Chameleon Camouflage

It’s a common misconception that chameleons change color primarily to blend in with their surroundings and avoid predators. While camouflaging with their surroundings is a positive byproduct of this behavior, there are actually stronger factors at work when it comes to color change.

While it is true that some species of chameleons, such as the Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholean sp.) use color change as a way to blend in, this is a pretty specialized case. Pygmies actually don’t change color in the traditional spectrum – you won’t see a red, blue, or even bright green Pygmy. They change between light and dark shades of brown and are shaped to resemble dead leaf litter on the forest floor.

chameleon changing color
An adult pygmy chameleon. Notice its pointed shape and lack of curly tail which help it resemble leaf litter. These little guys are pretty much brown their whole lives.

Another common erroneous belief is that a chameleon will change color to mimic it’s background. For instance, chameleons are commonly portrayed in pop culture as being able to rapidly transform themselves from green to purple to black and yellow stripes based on whatever they’re close to. This is not true.

veiled chameleon color change
This is a translucent veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus). Notice how it has white and black splotches. These are a result of selective captive breeding and are not a result of the chameleon trying to resemble the white backdrop behind it.

Chameleon Mood

The foremost reason chameleons change color is to communicate their mood, whether it be to other chameleons, potential predators, or even to their owners.

why chameleons change color
Notice the difference in color between these Meller’s chameleons. Above the chameleon is drabber because it is not being handled. It does not feel threatened or stressed, so it doesn’t feel the need to brighten up and show dominance. In the bottom photo, the chameleon is being handled, which can make the grumpier species feel angry, which in turn causes them to display brighter colors.

A general rule of thumb when it comes to interpreting your chameleon’s color is that brighter colors mean a more dominant animal. For example, if two males to come into view of one another, they will both puff up and turn a brighter green in order to display aggression and try to defend their territory. They are both trying to communicate to the other that they are the head honcho and whoever is bigger and brighter is more likely to win should they come to blows in the wild.

rudis chameleon color
This is a brightly-colored Rudis chameleon (Trioceros rudis) with her baby piggy-backing. Her bright color is a general indicator of her good health. This live birth occurred at our facility.

Dark, drab chameleons can be this color for a number of reasons. One, is a physical response to light and temperature (see the subheading below on temperature and lighting for more details). The other could be because the animal is unhealthy. This is not always the case, as certain species just tend to be in the brown color spectrum naturally (Oustalet’s, Pygmies, and Elephant Ears to name a few), but if your Jacksons or Panther is consistently drab and brown, you need to adjust something in its care regimen, probably its light and/or heat source.

Female chameleons will change color to indicate that they are pregnant or receptive/non-receptive to a potential mate. Males will also display more brilliant colorations when they are trying to impress a female.

Lighting and Temperature

Have you ever noticed how wearing black in the summer is generally going to make you hotter? The black clothes absorb the sun’s rays more and the same is true of a darker-colored chameleon’s skin.

Reptiles cannot thermoregulate their body temperature the same way that mammals do, so they have lots of tricks up their sleeves to help them warm up when needed. Sometimes when a chameleon is very dark or drab in color, it could be trying to absorb more heat.

baby chameleon color
This is a hatchling Veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus). It is young and still has some learning to do as far as color displays are concerned.

We hope that you learned something new by reading this article. If you’re inspired to purchase your own chameleon, Backwater Reptiles has many species of chameleons for sale on our website.