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Scientific classification

For the constellation see Chamaeleon


Chameleons are small to mid-size reptiles, and one of the best known lizard families. They are famous for their ability to change their colour but also because of their elongated tongue and their eyes which can be moved independently of each other. The name Chameleon means "earth lion" and is derived from the Greek words chamai (on the ground, on the earth) an leon (lion).

This is a rather old lizard family since fossil records are known from as early as the early Tertiary

Distribution and Habitat

The main distribution of Chameleons is Africa and Madagascar, although some species are also found in parts of southern Europe, Sri Lanka, India and Asia Minor. Different members of this family inhabit all kinds of biotopes like tropical and montane rain forests, savannahs and sometimes semideserts and steppes. Chameleons are mostly arboreal and are often found on smaller bushes and shrubs rather than on taller trees. Some species, however, live on the ground under foliage.


Chameleons are not active hunters but rather sit motionless for hours and wait for a prey to pass by. They mainly feed on different arthropods and small vertebrates. Chameleons live mostly solitary.

Change of Colour

Some Chameleon species are able to change their body colour, which made them one of the most famous lizard families. Contrary to popular belief, this change of colour is not an adaptation to the surroundings but rather an expression of the physical and physiological condition of the lizard. The skin colour is changed under influence of mood, light and temperature. The skin colour also plays an important part in communication and rivalry fights.

Chameleons have specialized cells that lie in two layers under the chameleon's transparent outer skin. These cells, which are called chromatophores, contain yellow and red pigments. Below these chromatophores are cell layers that have white and blue pigments. A layer of brown melanin is situated even deeper under these blue and white light reflecting cells. All these different pigment cells can change their size (expand or contract), thereby influencing the colour of light which is reflected.

Classification of Chamaeleonidae

Family Chamaeleonidae