The English word “chameleon” is derived from the Latin “chamaeleón”, which translates as “the lion of the ground.”
Different chameleon species come in a range of colours, with many having the ability to change their colour, pattern or shade. According to Wikipedia: “Chameleon skin has a superficial layer which contains pigments, and under the layer are cells with guanine crystals. Chameleons change colour by changing the space between the guanine crystals, this then changes the wavelength of light reflected off the crystals and changes the colour of the skin.”
Contrary to popular belief, when a chameleon changes its skin colour it is not trying to camouflage itself by blending into the environment; it does this to control its body temperature, to communicate with other chameleons or to express emotions.
These reptiles’ lower and upper eyelids are joined, with only a pin hole open large enough for a pupil. Each eye has the ability to pivot a full 360 degrees, focus and move independently, giving the chameleon the ability to look at two different objects simultaneously.
Chameleons do not have ears but can detect sound frequencies. While the chameleon’s tongue is thought to be up to twice the length of their body (excluding the tail), it has recently been discovered that smaller chameleons have proportionately larger tongues than their bigger counterparts. Tongue projection occurs at extremely high speed, reaching prey in as little as 0.07 seconds. The chameleon tongue’s tip is a bulbous ball of muscle, and as it hits its prey it rapidly forms a small suction cup.
Chameleons’ feet are adapted to movement in trees. Each foot displays five clearly distinguished toes, grouped into a flattened section of either two or three toes, giving each foot a tong-like appearance. On the front feet the outer group contains two toes, whereas the inner group contains three. On the rear feet this arrangement is reversed, allowing chameleons to grip tightly onto narrow or rough branches. Each toe is equipped with a sharp claw to help grip surfaces when climbing. Using their prehensile tail to wrap around tree branches, they are well equipped to handle most surfaces.
Unlike other animals, chameleons grow throughout their lives. As their old skin gets too small, they shed it in bits and pieces, dissimilar to snakes that shed their skin all at once. Chameleons typically eat large insects such as locusts, grasshoppers, crickets and stick insects. Some bigger species lizards and young birds.
Being loners, most of the time females don’t want males to come near them. During the rare moments when the female is willing to be touched, the male will approach for mating. A brightly coloured male is more likely to attract a female than a duller coloured male.
Chameleons do no parenting; the young are on their own as soon as they are born or hatched. Some chameleon species, such as Jackson’s chameleon, have live births. These species give birth to between eight and 30 young after a four to six month gestation period. A mother incubates the eggs – minus a shell – inside her body instead of laying them in a nest. A young chameleon is born live inside its yolk sac.
Other chameleons lay eggs, with an incubation period of between four and 24 months, depending on species. The size of the chameleon predicts how many eggs she will lay. Small chameleon species lay two to four eggs while larger chameleons lay 80 to 100 eggs.
Nearly half of the approximately 160 species of chameleon are endemic to Madagascar. Most of the remainder live on mainland Africa. Two species are found in southern Africa. The large flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) lays eggs. Marshall’s dwarf chameleon (Rhampholeon marshalli), resident in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, gives birth to live chameleons.
For many years chameleons have been collected for the international pet trade. Between 1977 and 2011, more than 111,000 individuals were exported for the pet trade. Although the species appears to be abundant, there is no information on population abundances and no population studies have been conducted.
An African superstition claims that man’s eventual destiny has been caused by the actions of the colour-changing, slow-moving and hesitant chameleon resulting in the animal being greatly feared and hated by local people. The most common myth blames the chameleon for the origin of death.
It is said that God sent the chameleon to tell human beings they would never die. The chameleon set off on his mission, but he was a slow walker and stopped to eat several times during his journey. Shortly after the chameleon had left, a lizard departed, carrying the message that human beings would not be immortal. The lizard, being much faster than the chameleon, was able to reach man first, passing on his message and establishing mankind’s mortality.
Some cultures claim the lizard eavesdropped on the conversation God had with the chameleon. His jealousy of the chameleon was so great he chose to deliver the opposite message. Other cultures believe God changed his mind about granting immortality to mankind after seeing how badly human beings were behaving.
Ann Warner is an amateur photographer living in Harare, Zimbabwe whose passion is wildlife. Her desire is to bring more awareness to the world on the plight of Africa`s Wildlife, showing the beauty through her lens and articles in the hope that more people will help join in the fight to save it.