Home | Lizards | Chameleons | Interesting Facts about the Anatomy and Natural History of the Chameleons

Interesting Facts about the Anatomy and Natural History of the Chameleons


In both captivity and nature, chameleons (Family Chamaeleonidae) stand alone – unique in so many ways, they are truly marvelous creatures to know and care for.  Today I would like to highlight a few unusual facts about these favored reptile pets.

Cultural Significance

Chameleons have long drawn our attention…in fact, their fossilized remains have been found alongside proto-human skeletons in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge.  Throughout Africa and Madagascar, they were regarded as somewhat mystical creatures, spying on people with their oddly-shaped eyes and reporting back to the deities about our (many!) shortcomings.

Fortunately, most of these beliefs also prohibited people from harming chameleons, and even today there are those who will risk a car accident rather than run one over.


To date, 178 chameleon species have been described.  The smallest (pygmy leaf chameleons, Genus Brookesia), barely reach 1.5 inches in length while the family’s giant, Oustalet’s chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti) may be 30 inches or more from nose to tail tip.

Range and Habitats

Chameleons reach their greatest diversity in Madagascar.  They are also found in coastal North Africa, Africa south of the Sahara, along the western edge of the Middle East and the northern shores of the Mediterranean and in India and Sri Lanka.  Two species have been introduced to Mexico and the USA.

Often regarded as rainforest animals, chameleons have also adapted to dry forests, deserts, mountainous areas (where they endure snow) and city parks.

Moving About

Chameleons walk with a peculiar rocking motion, designed to help them blend in with swaying leaves and branches…indeed, some species are reluctant to move unless a slight breeze is blowing.

In most species, the tail may be held straight out for balance, curled around a branch as a “fifth hand” or coiled tightly during dominance displays.  Chameleons in free-fall have been observed to latch onto branches with the tail, halting their descent!

The Amazing Tongue

I could go on for a long time about chameleon tongues (fear not, I’ll contain myself!), as the surprise of first seeing one in action some 3 decades ago is still fresh in my mind.  It is certainly one of nature’s most spectacular food-gathering innovations, and completely unique to this magnificent group of lizards.

The tongue is hollow and fits over a cartilaginous (bone-like) tube known as the hyoid spike.  Depending upon the species, it may be slightly shorter than or greatly exceed the chameleon’s body in length.

The tongue is projected out towards prey by powerful accelerator muscles, and tendons attaching its base to the hyoid spike cushion the shock of impact.  Once the tongue is on its way, the chameleon can only control the length of the strike…aiming is done beforehand.

Surprisingly, the tongue’s tip is not only sticky but also very abrasive…both qualities, along with a skin flap that flips over the hapless victim, assure that few meals escape.

Retractor muscles pull the tongue back into place.  These are quite powerful, allowing the lizard to reel in prey weighing half as much as itself.  Armed in this manner, large chameleons take quite large insects, and even small birds and rodents on occasion.

Further Reading

Chameleon reproductive behavior is among the lizard-world’s most complex.  The abstract of an interesting research project is posted at http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=13694591.



  1. avatar
    Morgan O'Connell

    We have false chameleons in Australia. No genetic relationship to chameleons but just behave similar. Chelosania brunnea, common name is misleading – Chameleon Dragon. Moves slowly and deliberately like a true chameleon. I don’t have any photos of this particular beast but I have some cool reptile shots on my blog http://biologicenv.com.au/blog/ Please check it out.

    • avatar

      Hello Morgan, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog and the information about Chelosania.

      I’ve always found parallel evolution to be very interesting….unrelated creatures evolve similar appearances and/or behaviors due to the influences of habitats, diets, etc. My favorite example is Australia’s thorny devil, Moloch horridus and the horned lizards (Phrynosoma spp.) of the American Southwest. Worlds apart, both have developed very similar and unusual body forms, spines, lifestyles, adaptations to an arid habitat and the ability to thrive on a diet comprised largely of ants.

      Your blog is most interesting, and with great photos of unique creatures. Thanks for bringing it to my attention…I’ve included it on our blog roll.

      I write about reptiles, amphibians, birds and invertebrates that are native to Australia from time to time. Please check in and feel free to comment.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    I would just like to add a note about chameleon color change. Many people think that chameleons change color to match thier invironment. The truth is that they change colors according to thier mood, or for the purpose of absorbing more or less sun light. Most chameleons will show thier best colors when they want to attract a mate or when they challenge the same sex to a fight. Old world chameleons never change color to match thier surrondings.

    • avatar

      Hello Marty, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      It seems that chameleons are intent on keeping us on our toes; while it is true that the factors you mentioned, as well as certain others, are the main driving forces in determining color, a little publicized Melbourne University study has recently established that at least one species, Smith’s Dwarf Chameleon, does indeed change color to match its surroundings when faced with a predator.

      Amazingly, it even modifies the degree of color change to fit the predator. I posted a short note when I heard the news (see below), but was surprised that the study did not seem to attract much attention when it was released; I understand that similar work on other species is now in progress. Please see Chameleons and Color Change: New Findings for a bit more info.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Why does my chameleon hist when I put my hand in viv. And it trys to head but .

    • avatar

      Hello Diane,

      Chameleons never take well to human contact or handling; even those that seem not to struggle are stressed by disturbance, handling etc. They are best kept in as large an enclosure as possible, with lots of plants and other cover so that they feel secure; they are fascinating to observe and study, but are strictly a “hands-off” pet. Any work you need to do in the terrarium should involve as little disturbance to the lizard as possible. What species do you have?

      Also many pet stores give poor info as to diet, etc. Please see this article on Chameleon Care, especially diet, and let me know if you need any further info.

      Best, Frank

  4. avatar

    I recently bought a chameleon and all the essential supplies like UVB lighting, day and night heat lamp bulbs, vines and bedding ect…. That I need for him. When I got the cage n all the supplies all squared away I started researching to find out more info on how to arrange his home better and what they could and couldn’t eat and so on. And found out that there’s 2 popular species that have 3 horns I think 1 was called (common 3 horned chameleon) and the other (Jackson Chameleon) and I found out that the (common cha) Can be sold for the price of a real 3horned j.cha! And the customer will rarely catch the mistake and it’s often done that way because the common cha. Is way cheaper and the pet shops will buy them and then turn around and sell them for alot more but not on purpose or to cheat anyone but because they don’t really kno that it’s not a true j. Cha… Can you identify my chameleon by picture or is it more difficult then that? (I’m not sure how to post a picture(s) so if anyone can help let me kno and I’ll send you some.

    • avatar


      Unfortunately, there’s no rhyme or reason to reptile prices…trickery, as you mention, is common, but there’s also a good deal of misinformation, and pet stores in particular often lack accurate information. Photos are not always useful, unfortunately, and common names are very confusing, and change often. best to deal with private breeders when possible, and to research Latin names rather than common names. before expanding your collection. Here is a list of the currently accepted taxonomy, including species and subspecies…click on name for info on range, subspecies. Best regards, Frank

  5. avatar

    Hello Frank, I would like to ask you some of the chameleons history, could you tell me some of them ? Thanks

    • avatar


      Thanks for our interest, but I’m not clear on what you are asking…please let me know what species you have in mind, and what type of information you’d like, thanks, best regards, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by

Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
Scroll To Top