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by Gerry Bishop

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Ever seen a creature as creepy as the one above left? Check out those bulging eyes, knobby horns, and funky feet! Don't worry, though. It's just a three-horned chameleon (kuh-MEE-lee-un), coming your way to say, "Welcome to my weird world!"

Chameleons are lizards that are famous for changing color. But how much do you really know about them? Read on and you may be surprised.


Q: Do chameleons change color to match their surroundings?

No. Chameleons hang out where their normal, "everyday" colors match their surroundings. In other words, a normally green chameleon usually lives among green leaves, and a normally brown one may live on the ground. This helps hide them from predators and makes it easier to surprise prey.


Q: What causes them to change color?

Chameleons may turn darker to warm up or lighter to cool down. (Dark colors take in more heat from the sun.) Chameleons also may change color when they become frightened or angry or stressed out. For example, the two panther chameleons top right are the same species in two very different moods!

Chameleons also may use different colors to send messages to others of their kind. One set of colors may mean, "Stay away from me!" Another set may mean, "Do you want to be my mate?"


Q: How big are chameleons?

The pygmy chameleon is one of the smallest. (The small photo above shows it life-sized.) One of the biggest is the cat-sized Parson's chameleon.


Q: Where do chameleons live?

Most species live in Africa--many on the island of Madagascar (see map above.) A few kinds can be found in India, the Middle East, and southern Europe.


Q: Don't some chameleons live in the United States?

Chameleons don't live naturally in the United States (or anywhere else in North or South America.) You might find some living "in the wild" in Hawaii, California, and Florida. But they're the offspring of escaped pets that came from other parts of the world.

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There is one kind of American lizard that's often called a chameleon. But it's not a chameleon at all. It's the green anole (uh-NO-lee) at top right. Green anoles live in the southeastern states and Texas.


Q: What kinds of habitats are chameleons found in?

Most species live in forests, where they crawl around in the trees and bushes. Others live in trees and bushes found in more open places such as scrublands.

But a few chameleons, such as the horned leaf chameleon (photo 1), live among the dead leaves on the forest floor. Others live on the ground in more open places. The Namaqua (nuh-MAH-kwuh) chameleon (2), for example, can survive in Africa's Namib Desert--one of the world's hottest and driest places.


Q: How do chameleons find and catch their prey?

A chameleon on the hunt may sit quietly and wait for prey to come near. Or it may move slowly and quietly along a branch or the ground. Its mitten-like feet give it a firm grip. And its two eyes turn in different directions at once, looking for the slightest movement. No other animal on Earth has eyes and feet like these!

When the chameleon finally spots an insect or other likely prey, its eyes lock in on the target. After taking careful aim-ZAP!--the lizard shoots out its super-long tongue. The tip of the tongue is wet and shaped like a suction cup. So when it smacks against the prey, it sticks tight. The Parson's chameleon in the large photo above has just latched on to a cricket. With the prize held fast, the tongue then slips back into the chameleon's open mouth. Yum!

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Q: How do chameleons have babies?

It all starts when a female and male get together. But that doesn't happen easily. Usually, a female chameleon wants nothing to do with a male. When one comes close to her, she shows bright colors (see veiled chameleon above left), hisses, and chases him away.

When a female is ready to mate, she doesn't change to bright colors. The male takes this as a signal that it's safe to come closer.

He then may show off his brightest colors, as seen in the photo of flap-necked chameleons above. If she likes the show, she'll let him be her mate.

After mating, a female looks for a safe place to lay her eggs: maybe under a rock or leaves or in soft sand or soil. There, she digs a hole, drops in her eggs, covers them up, and pushes down the loose ground. Then off she goes.

The sun warms the eggs for several months. And one day, the baby chameleons hatch and crawl out. (See veiled chameleons top right.) They never meet their parents. They hatch having the survival skills they need.

Some species of chameleons don't lay eggs. Instead, a mother keeps her eggs inside her until the babies are ready. Then out they come, inside thin sacs. The babies break through the sacs and set off on their own.


Q: Are chameleons endangered?

Of the more than 180 different species of chameleons, only a few are in immediate danger of becoming extinct. But most are threatened in some way or another.

The biggest threat comes when the chameleons' habitat is destroyed. More and more people are cutting down forests for wood and for land to grow crops. And when the forests go, so go the chameleons and the other wild creatures that depend on them.

Double trouble comes when the chameleons are captured and sold around the world as pets. Many die before they even reach people's homes. And most of the rest die soon afterward.


Q: So why do people buy them?

Like the girl at far right, they love the idea of owning such a cool creature. But then they find out that it's almost impossible to give a wild chameleon all it needs to survive.

Many of the chameleons now for sale have been hatched and raised in captivity. But unless you're an expert chameleon keeper, even these are hard to care for properly.


Q: How long have chameleons existed?

Fossils prove chameleons have roamed the Earth for at least 80 million years. Let's hope that people do their best to help them stay around a lot longer! 

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