How and Why Chameleons Change Color

Chameleons are famous for their ability to change color and adapt to their surroundings. But how true is this, really? The answer may surprise you.

“The color-changing properties of chameleons don’t really help them blend in, but rather their natural, relaxed state is what helps them blend in,” marketing manager for the Conservation Society of California at the Oakland Zoo Daniel Flynn says. “The expression, ‘blending in like a chameleon’ isn’t entirely accurate, meaning these lizards don’t change their appearance to fit in, but rather to stand out.”

For a long time, scientists believed that chameleons colors change similarly to how octopuses switch shades. But now, they understand that something else is going on. The color change that people can see is actually a structural change on the cells underneath the skin that looks like different colors based on the light refracting. Chameleons actually change colors when they are excited or feel threatened, as well as when they want to attract a mate or intimidate an enemy. 

Not all chameleons are the same. Some can change from neutral to bright colors, while others just range from light to dark. We’re able to see the changes because the top layer of their skin is transparent. We may have been wrong about the chameleons so far, but it turns out they are much more interesting than we thought!