Chameleons show their true colours

The reptile kingdom boasts many weird and wonderful creatures of all different shapes and colours. One of the most intriguing has to be the chameleon. This blog entry reveals the secret behind how this bizarre and beautiful beast changes colour, and offers up plenty more fascinating facts besides.

Masters of colour theory

Dressing to impress

The most brightly coloured outfits go on display when two male chameleons compete for the favour of a female. The ladies are drawn to striking colours, so the brightest gentleman is sure to win the day. Dominant males can thus be identified by their gorgeously gaudy garb, while more subordinate males don fairly modest greys and browns. The speed at which males change colour also plays a role in impressing a female and ultimately winning her affections. The female chameleon then selects a skin colour that signals to the gentleman in question whether or not he has piqued her interest. This seems like a much more straightforward way of going about things than trying to manoeuvre the minefield of modern dating!

There are other ways in which chameleons’ colour changes are eminently practical. For instance, females have a particular hue to signal that they are pregnant, and an uninterested individual of either sex can simply choose an inconspicuous colour and slip away unnoticed.

A colourful conundrum

But what we want to know is, how do chameleons actually change colour? What have they got that we haven’t? Why can’t we get up in the morning and simply select the skin colour that best suits our mood?

Until recently, the processes in chameleons’ skin responsible for the colour changes were still largely a mystery to researchers. But now the secret is finally out. The answer is found deep within the skin cells. Join us on a journey through the microscope...

Refresher course in physics

From physics to art and biology – yes, more school!

So it turns out that chameleons have four different layers of skin. The top layer, the epidermis, simply has a protective purpose. The bottom layer can only reflect the colour white. The exciting layers are the two in between. They contain highly specialised pigment-bearing cells known as iridophores. Within those cells are nanocrystals that reflect light, and it is these crystals that are responsible for the chameleons’ remarkable ability to change colour. The two middle layers of skin each play a different role in the transformation process. The second layer contains primarily yellow and red pigments while the third has dark pigments that create browns and blues. Within both layers, the nanocrystals are arranged in a lattice form. Researchers have learned that it is the spacing between the nanocrystals that determines the colour of the chameleon’s skin. If the reptile is relaxed, the crystals in its skin are close together and reflect short-wave blue light, which has to pass through the yellowish pigment in the next layer of skin. And as you will surely remember from primary school art lessons, blue plus yellow makes green – and that is why our chilled-out Yemen chameleons appear green.

Wearing their heart on their skin

But what else is happening inside a chameleon’s skin? When a chameleon gets excited or agitated, nerve impulses and hormonal changes alter the lattice of nanocrystals in the skin cells. The crystals move further apart than when the chameleon is relaxed; now they reflect long-wave red light instead of short-wave blue light, thus making the skin appear yellow or orange. How rapidly the colour change occurs depends primarily on the size of the individual in question. It can happen in a matter of seconds or it can take several minutes. In general, the smaller the chameleon, the quicker the change. 

Now I have some information that might disappoint you. Contrary to how they are portrayed in popular culture, chameleons cannot take on any and every colour. Each subspecies has its own palette of hues and patterns. These are astonishingly beautiful and varied but, no, if you put a Yemen chameleon on a rainbow flag, its skin will NOT take on stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Sorry!

In conclusion:

We can say that a chameleon’s mood triggers specific nerve impulses and hormonal changes that alter the spacing between nanocrystals in pigment-bearing skin cells. As the crystals in two layers of the chameleon’s skin move further apart or closer together, they generate a range of different colours and patterns.

More reasons to go crazy about chameleons

As if their magical colour-changing abilities weren’t enough, here are five more reasons why you should absolutely check out our Yemen chameleons on your next visit to Aquarium Berlin:

  1. Eyes in the back of their head: Chameleons have a 360-degree arc of vision and can rotate and focus each eye independently. Their big, bulgy eyes are almost entirely covered in eyelid, with just a pinhole large enough for the pupil to see through.

  2. Fast food: A chameleon’s tongue can extend twice the length of its body. At the end of the tongue is a kind of muscular suction cup that can quickly envelop larger insects. The tongue shoots out at a speed that would put any racing car to shame – from zero to 100 in a hundredth of a second. It takes a chameleon just 0.07 seconds to capture its prey. And, as is the case with the changing of skin colour, the smaller the chameleon, the quicker it happens.

  3. How does that grab you? Unlike other lizards, chameleons cannot shed their tails. That would be a big disadvantage anyway, as their prehensile tails are extremely useful. The chameleons can grip branches with their tail, making it a kind of fifth foot that comes in very handy when climbing.

  4. Gaining a foothold: Chameleons’ feet are perfectly adapted to life in the trees. Each foot has five toes, with two pointing one way and three pointing the other. The toes form tight bundles within their group, allowing the chameleons to grip firmly to any kind of branch.

  5. A sizeable difference: Chameleons don’t only vary in shape and colour, they also vary in size. The males of the smallest species grow to just 1.5 cm long, while the largest species can reach up to 70 cm in length. 

By the way:

Aquarium Berlin currently has some mini-chameleons on display. Our Yemen chameleons recently had some adorable babies. When the approximately 1 cm long eggs hatched, out came four babies each just 3 cm in length (when their tails were unfurled). But if you’d like to see Chris, Charly, Che and Chai while they’re still wee, you’d better hurry – they have already grown impressively over the past few weeks.

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