What Do Chameleon Colors Mean?

Chameleons are famous for changing colors. A coat of many colors is a story about a little girl who had a coat that was not just one color. She takes it to church with her and everyone admires the colors.

That’s a chameleon! Just like peacocks, a chameleon will change color depending on its mood changes, temperature, or body language.

This is thanks to its three pigments; brown, black, and red. So, really, what do chameleon colors mean? Well, the following reasons are the most likely.

  • Chameleon will change to darker colors such as black when stressed or to neutral colors such as beige or light brown when in a relaxed state. But, if they are happy, they will turn to brighter colors such as green.
  • On the other hand, to show aggression or excitement, chameleons will turn to brighter colors such as orange, red, bright blue, or green.
  • In addition, a chameleon will change color depending on temperature. For example, when it gets cold outside, the chameleon changes their skin pigment to black – this helps them absorb more heat.

In this article, we will talk (in detail) about the colors of a chameleon. You’ll learn what they mean.

In a Hurry? Check these Chameleon Cages

What’s the Normal Chameleon Coloration?

Chameleons of different species are either brown or green when they’re in their normal (neutral or resting) state, but the hue will depend on the natural habitat of the animal.

For instance;

  • Panther chameleons are the only species that’ll turn bright red and so others like my favorite chameleon; the Veiled chameleon cannot.
  • Further, other small brown to black chameleon species will only affect color change on their skin between the ranges of brown to black.

1. Show Aggression: Bright Colors like bright green or red

Male chameleons quickly change the skin to bright colors to display their aggression as they defend their territory.

They’ll display quick and explosive skim-color changes – white, yellow, blue, bright green, or red (all bright colors). It’ll also show dark green spots, brown spots & stripes, and yellow stripes.

Chameleons will use these color changes to frighten and warn the opponents attacking their territory while also making them visible in their surroundings such as when among green trees.

  • Also, the chameleon may show bright colors to assert itself.

However;

  • When a male chameleon believes that it’s weaker than its opponent, it’ll mute or dim its colors as a sign of submission or defeat.

During the mating season, male chameleons will be more aggressive to attract mates (females) by showing bright colors.

  • The chameleon will flatten its body sideways to displays the colors; these are yellow with green stripes and a black lining or red and pale blue stripes with black outline or blotches.

For example, as your veiled chameleon’s ages, they’ll become highly dominant and aggressive and hence reacting with the aggressive colors – bright colors.

Therefore, you’ll find it easy to pick or touch that young veiled chameleon compared to the older one.

Also, like other reptiles, veiled chameleons express themselves through posture and body language.

  • For example, when startled or threatened the veiled chameleons may hiss (opening their jaws), raise one foot in the air, swell out their chest, and puff up their throat.

Related: Do Cats Eat Lizards?

2. Relaxed Mood: Neutral Colors like Pale brown or Light green

When chameleons are resting, they change colors to reflect their current natural habitat such as pale brown or light green as applicable.

The chameleon will also move to a place that matches their color of relaxation (neutral or muted colors such as beige and light brown) to attain more camouflage, and also hide easily if attacked.

  • For example, the Veiled chameleon will show they’re in their relaxed state by changing to mute brown.

Veiled chameleons are terrestrial chameleons and are larger than the other species in this family.

  • Being ambush predators, they use their color-changing abilities to catch prey by waiting for them to come close.
  • They can sit still for hours without moving or making a sound so that when something approaches, it will not be aware of what happened until too late.
  • The colors of the Veiled chameleon are a mixture of various shades of brown and grey, with some patches in deeper reds or yellows.
  • These beautiful colors show that they’re able to adjust their coloration according to what kind of habitat they live in as well as the time during the year.

3. Attract Mates: Vibrant colors

Male chameleons will display brighter or more vibrant colors during specific times of the year when mating season starts up again, which is a great way to catch the eye of a mate.

  • This is their way of showing off to females what a great mate they would make, and also how well-adapted for living in their environment they are.

Some of the bright colors chameleons show during the mating season include red with yellow, white, blue, or black stripes. Others include red hues around the animal’s sides and head.

On the other hand;

  • A female chameleon will reject the courting or mating advances from the male chameleon by displaying a warning color such as a white or brown stripe along the animal’s body.

But;

  • The female chameleon show willingness to have sex by displaying golden stripes with green and light blue backgrounds

The intensity of the color may vary according to the species of chameleon. The male panther chameleon shows red and yellow color with light green stripes when the mating season approaches.

Related: How Lizards Mate

4. Display Fear:

When in shock or under attack, chameleons will show what is called “fear colors” which are usually darker colors like black.

For example, your Veiled chameleons will change to dark colors when it is under attack, or it’s shocking or in defense.

The color gets darker when the fear level intensifies. This is to help them blend better into their environment when under attack.

The veiled chameleon may even roll into a small ball-shaped body to offer further protection. The chameleon will not change back to its original color until it ensures that its life is fully secured/safe.

5. During Humidity or Temperature Change

Environmental changes like humidity or temperature change can cause the chameleon to change color. This is because of how their cells react in these conditions.

Chameleons are ectothermic reptiles, which means they rely on external heat sources for body temperature regulation and cannot do so themselves by generating metabolic heat from aerobic respiration like mammals would with a respiratory system.

Any fall in temperature will force them to change their skin color into dark/black color which enables them to absorb more heat from the surface (this change assumes the camouflaging advantage – the background color may differ with the skin color).

Chameleons will change to brighter colors such as light blue, bright red, light green or white to help them reflect sun rays from their skin surface. Moreover, the skin becomes lighter on a hotter day.

6. Chameleon to Chameleon Communication:

Just like humans, Chameleons have ways of social communication. Scientists believe that mostly, chameleons change their color to communicate with other counterparts in the colony.

Research shows that female chameleons will change to light or pale green when in courtship/mating season to signal (keep off signal) other male chameleons that may need to relate with them.

In addition, an expectant chameleon changes to black or dark to alert other chameleons to keep off. Jackson’s chameleon and Madagascar chameleon are able to send threat communication to other chameleons by changing suddenly to black, dark, or reddish-brown color.

7. Show Excitement and Stimulation.

Chameleon, just like other animals and human beings gets excited. They express such stimulation and excitement by changing their colors.

When the veiled chameleon is excited (maybe when mating or hunting), it changes to dark green, yellow or brown color.

The stimulation due to attack makes the panther chameleon change its skin to dark red, or dull brown, or black color.

8. Prevailing environmental condition/weather

During rainy seasons, chameleons change their skin into dull or dark colors. You will find a Bright colored chameleon in fair weather (not rainy or sunny).

During sunny weather, chameleons such as panthers and Jackson’s change their color to bright yellow, bright green, or white. Cold weather makes the chameleon skin change to dull, dark, or black color.

This enables chameleon to absorb more heat from the surrounding which helps in maintaining their internal temperature at optimum.

  • This change of colors in the various environmental conditions is a special form of adaptation for chameleons (temperature regulation).

What are the Scientific Principles Behind Changing colors in Chameleons?

Chameleons change their colors due to the function of “specialized cells” called chromatophores or nanocrystals (small crystals).

  • These are pigment-containing and light-sensitive cells, which expand or contract in response to temperature or mood changes for example.
  • When these specialized cells in chameleon skin undergo contraction (thanks to the iridophores – the spacing between the nanocrystals), they produce patterns on the surface of animal skin that either reflects or absorbs the surrounding light.

But how’s this possible?

Well, reflecting light is the pivotal aspect that determines the color. An object can be either a red or yellow type of color because it reflects longer wavelengths or shorter wavelengths of light.

To understand a chameleon’s myriad colors, think of the nanocrystals in the iridophores of its skin as “mirrors.”

The nanocrystals are spaced far apart (the “mirrors” are “longer”) when the chameleon is stressed allowing it to reflect brighter colors with longer wavelengths such as yellow and red.

  1. The nanocrystals in a chameleon’s skin are spaced out far apart when they’re stressed. This makes the light reflecting from those cells brighter and is of longer wavelengths like red or yellow.
  2. When relaxed, the nanocrystals are closer together (shorter “mirrors”) which causes colors with shorter wavelengths to be reflected. These reflective colors include green and blue.
  3. The color change to black in a chameleon’s skin is attributed to the upper layering of melanin that it disperses in its tail – no nanocrystals are used here. The dark pigment, when cold and chilling out, means it’s not facing any threat, but rather wants to display its submissive mood.

This is what enables chameleon to blend with their surroundings and it also helps them in temperature regulation as they change their colors according to the ambient temperatures.

Related: Can Lizards Swim?

Do all chameleons change colors?

Chameleons change colors though not all species have the same speed and ability to change colors that we have discussed above.

Chameleon such as veiled, panther, and Madagascar are able to change into multiple colors such as green, yellow, light blue, and red in less than 20seconds.

However, many chameleon species are only able to change from light to dark colors and vice-versa.

The tree-dwelling chameleons are more vulnerable to predators due to their less capability in changing their colors (they also have minimum color-changing options – they can change to green, blue, or dark/black). These chameleons, then, tend to stay in the canopy as their hideouts.

Chameleons found in arid and semi-arid areas have a weak ability to change to various colors due to temperature variations (high temperature affects the color variations in chameleons). 

The panther chameleon rarely camouflages with the background even when in danger. The Jackson’s Chameleon’s skin color is highly controlled by a change in temperature and moods than fear of predation.

  • Since most chameleons have dominant green color in their skin melanin, the color tends to darken when they are in a green background due to the cell color reflection (a concept that is highly confused with camouflaging).
  • The Madagascar lizards are well known to match the green background, which makes it difficult for the predator to sport them.

Though camouflaging plays a role in the protection of chameleon against its predator, it accounts for less than 5 percent as to why chameleon’s skin change color.

Conclusion

Chameleon’s skin colors reflect its moods, comfort/relaxation, environment or weather conditions as well as stress. Though the camouflage concept of the chameleon plays a role in its predator protection, the effect is less significant.

The ability of chameleons to change their colors varies according to the particular species. The color change in the chameleon’s skin is coordinated by a shift in iridophores orientations. 

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