The Many Colors of a Chameleon

March 21, 2014 in Aerowood Animal Hospital

While many animals change body colors to protect or hide themselves in their environment, new research shows that chameleon color changes serve a different purpose: to communicate during social interactions with other chameleons.

In their recent study, researchers from Arizona State University used photographic and mathematical modeling to observe and evaluate things such as maximum brightness and speed of color change on over two dozen areas of a chameleon’s body. While a chameleon is normally shades of greens and browns, the study shows that during an altercation their colors transform to bright yellows, oranges, greens, and blues. This happens, for example, when male chameleons challenge each other over territory or a female. The researchers say the altercation is usually decided before it even begins. The males who exhibit the brightest stripes and colors are more likely to be aggressive and approach an opponent. The same can be said for the chameleon whose head changes color the quickest.

By using information on the physiology and sensitivity of the chameleons’ photoreceptors, the authors were also able to measure the colors that the lizards were seeing. The study shows that in most cases, the opponent chameleon will retreat because of the color displays. If a physical confrontation does happen, it usually doesn’t last more than 15 seconds before the vividly colored chameleon overtakes his opponent.

Source: Ligon R, McGraw K. Chameleons communicate with complex colour changes during contests: different body regions convey different information. Biology Letters, Dec 2013; 9 (6): 20130892.

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