And, of course, their most distinctive feature, they are able to change colors, although despite all the hype, not all 160 species have this ability. Colors can range from black to every color of the rainbow (the range and pattern is species specific) and the change can happen for various reasons, including change in mood, presence of other chameleons or predators, sex, and camouflage - darker colors for anger, fear and intimidation, lighter and multi colors for courting females. They also change color to help regulate their body temperature - darker colors to absorb heat from the sun, lighter colors to reflect it. And females already carrying eggs can let a male know through her color, as well as attitude, that she is 'not interested'. The skin of a chameleon is actually transparent and there are three layers of cells beneath it; cells that contain pigment in their cytoplasm. Each layer can turn different colors - the top layer has red and yellow pigment, the center layer blue and white, the third layer contains melanin - the same pigment found in human skin.
Chameleons are usually found in warm climates, but in diverse ecosystems from rain forests to deserts in Africa, southern Europe, southeast Asia and have been introduced to California, Hawaii and Florida. However, almost half of the known species are endemic to Madagascar. Their main diet is insects, but larger chameleons also eat young birds, lizards, geckos, smaller chameleons, and some eat plant material such as leaves (some species use leaves as a source of moisture), shoots, berries and other fruit. Chameleons range in size from a half inch to over two feet long. Females lay anywhere from 2 to 100 eggs (smaller species lay fewer eggs) in a hole in the ground, and, depending on the species, the eggs take anywhere from 4 months to possibly two years to hatch. However, a few species of chameleons give birth to live babies rather than laying eggs. Most chameleons are arboreal, but some of the smaller species are terrestrial.
Here are some photos showing the diversity of this incredible animal. The smallest known chameleon is from Madagascar and is from a genus known as the leaf chameleons. And yes, it is sitting on the head of a match!
Brookesia micra Source: Wikipedia
The giant Malagasy chameleon, one of the largest if not THE largest species, is also found in Madagascar.
The veiled chameleon is from the Middle East. Males have a spur on their back feet, while females do not.
Male Source: Wikipedia
.Jackson's chameleon or three-horned chameleon is from Africa.
The very colorful panther chameleon is also from Madagascar. With these two pictures, you can see the color variation in this species.
The black-headed dwarf chameleons are found only in South Africa. It's not much bigger than the grasshopper it is catching.
Also found in Madagascar, the Parson's chameleon vies for the title of largest chameleon with the giant Malagasy chameleon shown above.
One of the desert dwellers, the Namaqua chameleon has several special adaptations - it excretes salt from nasal glands, and digs holes for thermoregulation. Its diet also includes small snakes and even scorpions.
The jeweled chameleon lives in mountainous forests of central Madagascar at 6,000 to 7,500 feet in altitude and is said to hibernate in the leaf litter during winter months.
The Labord's chameleon only lives 4 or 5 months, the shortest lifespan of any four-legged mammal. Eggs hatch with the first rains of November, by February or March the females have laid their eggs and then the entire population dies off until the eggs hatch the next year.
The dwarf Fisher's chameleon is taking a snooze. This little guy is from Africa.
And, last but not least, the Meller's chameleon, or giant one-horned chameleon, is the largest chameleon from the African mainland. This species lifespan is up to 12 years in captivity. Lifespans of many chameleons in the wild are not really known.
Even though they are all called chameleons, there is a large variation from species to species. To see a video and learn more about chameleons, click here and here. To see the chameleon's long tongue and how it catches insects, click here.