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Chameleons are famous for changing colors. They don’t do it to camouflage themselves, as is commonly thought; they change color in response to temperature, stress level, reproductive state and mood. Male chameleons are usually more boldly colored than females and usually display their most intense colors when confronted by another chameleon.
Brown and Grey Phases
Many chameleon species, including panther (Furcifer pardalis), Jackson’s (Chamaeleo jacksonii) and Senegal (Chamaeleo senegalensis) chameleons will display dark brown colors if they are cold, sick or stressed. Other chameleons, including many of the stump-tailed chameleons (Brookesia sp.), always display brown or other earth tones that help them to blend in to their natural habitat. Outstalet’s chameleons (Furcifer outstaleti), potentially the largest chameleon species in the world, usually exhibit grey or brown colors.
Many chameleons are predominately green when in a low-stress situations. Four-horned (Chamaeleo quadricornis), Senegal, and Jackson’s chameleons are typically green when healthy and calm. Panther and veiled chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) often display green base color; gold, blue, red and white bars may be present. A number of species produce plain, green females who contrast sharply with the more colorful males.
Perhaps the most spectacularly colored chameleons are the adult male panther chameleons from Nosy Be Island, and near the city of Ambanja, on the west coast of Madagascar. Variations among individuals is significant, but many Nosy Be animals display head-to-toe powder-blue coloration. Ambanja males tend to retain more green, and their blue is a deeper shade than the color displayed by Nosy Be specimens. Adult male veiled chameleons occasionally develop blue markings, though they aren’t as flamboyant as the blue panther chameleons.
There aren’t many chameleons who can make their whole body red, but several types of panther chameleon display some red in their pattern. One exception is male panther chameleons from the east coast of Madagascar, notably those from Tamatave, who display bright red or orange coloration over their entire body.
Some chameleons display so many different colors that it is difficult to characterize them. Panther chameleons from Ambilobe are kaleidoscopic animals, they can display red, orange, yellow, blue, white and green colors at the same time. Carpet or jeweled chameleons (Furcifer lateralis) display a variety of colors. Females of the species are often marked with purple, blue and white markings on a dark background. Male carpet chameleons are usually green with blue, orange or white markings.
Gravid Color Phases
Gravid females usually adopt dark or highly contrasting color patterns. This serves to let the males know that breeding attempts will be futile, saving the females the stress of mating. Black, brown and red are frequently incorporated into gravid color displays.
- Animal Diversity Web: Furcifer lateralis
- Animal Diversity Web: Chamaeleo jacksonii
- Chameleons! Online E-zine: The Senegal Chameleon (Chamaeleo senegalensis)
- The Online Field Guide: Oustalet's Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti)
- WildMadagascar.org: Brookesia Chameleons of Madagascar
- The Chameleon Company: Locales and Color Variations
- ReptileChannel.com: Four-Horned Chameleons
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images