Heres Why Chameleons Actually Change Color Its Not for Camouflage

first_img If cartoons and movies like Disney’s Tangled are to be believed, chameleons are the master of disguise, able to blend into any background — no matter how complex or colorful — whenever they need to escape danger. But the reality is, chameleons don’t change color to camouflage themselves. (And no, they can’t make themselves match fancy floral patterned backgrounds on plant pots whenever they feel like it, like Pascal does in Tangled.)Of course, it is true that chameleons, lacking defenses like a dangerous bite or poisonous skin, aren’t very well protected against predators, so staying hidden does help them survive. In fact, chameleons can naturally blend into their surroundings very easily without requiring them changing color very much, or even at all. In their relaxed state, they’re usually shades of brown, grey or green, which allows them to blend into the leaves and trees of their natural habitat. They can — and do — sometimes adjust to how bright and dark their skin appears to match the light outside, but this requires only slight changes in the hue of their skin — no fancy color displays needed.A spiny chameleon (Furcifer verrucosus) at Mandraka Reserve near Moramanga, Madagascar. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)Instead, the bright color-changing abilities we know them for are less about protecting the chameleons from danger and more about communication. Bright colors help chameleons communicate how they are feeling, kind of like that mood ring that you wore in middle school was supposed to broadcast how you were feeling. In other words, if a chameleon is angry or fearful, its colors tend to darken, but if it is trying to establish dominance, its colors will brighten.For example, male chameleons are very territorial so when two males run into each other, they will have a color standoff until one of them (generally the smaller or less dynamically-colored) concedes. At that point, he will “turn off” his color display, letting the dominant male know that he gives up. In fact, according to a study in PLOS One, some males will even use their colors to impersonate females (who are generally less brightly colored) to sneak by other males so that they don’t have to compete with them during mating season.Changing colors is also very important during chameleon mating season. Research shows that male chameleons will change bright colors as a courtship display to attract and impress a female. And in turn, a female will change colors too — usually to a less vivid color — to let a male know if she is, indeed available.All these color changes happen thanks to the unique cells found in a chameleon’s skin. According to a study in the journal Nature, chameleons have two layers of iridescent cells, called “iridophore cells” in their skin, and these iridophore cells contain guanine nanocrystals of different sizes, shapes and organizations. So, when chameleons relax or get excited, they can move and change the structure of these special iridophore cells, which in turn changes how the nanocrystals reflect different wavelengths of light.For example, when a chameleon’s skin is relaxed, the nanocrystals in the iridophore cells are very close together, reflecting short wavelengths of light, such as blue. But when the chameleon is excited — i.e. when a male is trying to establish dominance — the distance between the crystals in those cells is increased, causing the crystals to selectively reflect longer wavelengths, such as yellow, orange or red.Female and colorful male Panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) at Mandraka Reserve near Moramanga, Madagascar. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)Scientists also believe that chameleons change colors for another reason too: to help them regulate their body temperatures. Because chameleons are ectotherms (otherwise known as “cold-blooded”), they’re unable to generate their own body heat. Instead, they warm up by basking in the sun. Since dark colors absorb more light — and therefore heat, while lighter colors reflect light, scientists believe that chameleons also change color depending on their body temperature. In other words, if they’re cold, they’ll get darker. If they’re warm, they’ll turn a lighter color.While chameleons might not the masters of disguise we imagine them to be in popular culture, the reality is that these color-changing creatures are still pretty impressive. The fact that they they can change these bright colors at all in such a unique way — and do so pretty quickly too — makes them pretty unique in the animal kingdom. No wonder they capture our imagination.More on Do Turkeys Have a Flap of Skin Hanging From Their Face?How Do Spiders Survive the Winter?Why Are Pigeons So Good at Surviving in Cities? Watch: Dolphin Leaps Feet Away From Unsuspecting SurferWatch: Deep-Sea Octopus ‘Billows Like a Circus Tent’ Stay on targetlast_img read more