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How and Why Do Chameleons Change Colors?


Out of the wide variety of pet reptile species, the chameleon is one of the most fascinating. As you may know, chameleons are a type of lizard, but they have some very unique features that set them apart from other lizards. For example, they have a prehensile  tail that can grasp branches to help them climb, as well as monocular vision where each of their eyes can move and focus on objects independently. But of course their most famous trait is their extraordinary ability to change skin color.  

If you have never seen a chameleon changing color, it’s truly quite dramatic.  But why do these unique animals undergo these significant color changes? And do all species of chameleons have this special ability?  Let’s take a deep dive into how this reptile accomplishes this unique feat and how to interpret different chameleon color meanings.  

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Do all chameleons change color?

There are more than 100 different species of chameleons, originating mainly from Madagascar, Africa and Asia. All chameleons are able to change hues, though the chameleon color chart of each species may vary.  

Male chameleons undergo dramatic color changes, and their colors are brighter than those of females. Females experience subtle color changes and display moremuted colors than their male counterparts. 

If you’re looking for a brightly colored pet, the panther chameleon’s colors are some of the most vibrant. Their distinct markings are reminiscent of a panther’s spotted appearance. Males are larger than females, growing up to 20 inches long in their natural habitat—though as pets they tend to stay a little smaller. Their beautiful colors can range fromblue to red, green, yellow and orange. The colors they adopt are in part determined by what subspecies they are descended from in Madagascar. They develop the ability to change colors when they are sexually mature, and they may not reach their full color-changing potential until adulthood. 

Veiled chameleon colors are not as brilliant or jewel-like as those of panther chameleons, but they’re still a sight to behold. Veiled chameleons have a bony protrusion on the top of their heads called a casque. This beautiful, crown-like casque helps them channel rainwater toward their mouths to keep them hydrated. This structure may have evolved because these chameleons originated from the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen where water is scarce. To learn more about veiled chameleons, check out our Veiled Chameleon Care Sheet

Female veiled chameleon colors are usually more subdued than those of males. Their casques are smaller, too, likely because female chameleons are generally more petite than the males regardless of their breed. Males also may have developed larger casques to convey their fighting ability.  

Jackson’s chameleons are brown when young and develop brighter colors as they mature. Around four or five months of age, Jackson’s chameleons change their colors from browns to greens, teals and blacks—but they can also have yellow hues. As with other species of chameleons, males tend to have brighter colors with hues of blue or yellow. Male Jackson’s chameleons also have three big horns on their heads, which are distinctive to their species, and are sometimes referred to as three-horned chameleons.  

Why do chameleons change colors? 

In TV shows and cartoons, chameleons are often shown changing colors to help them camouflage. They might pass in front of a neon yellow sign or bright blue background and their skin color will immediately change to that exact shade so they blend into their environment.  

This notion that chameleons change colors to camouflage themselves is actually a myth. There are many reasons why chameleons change color—and blending into their environment is not the main purpose. In fact, a chameleon’s natural appearance allows them to blend in well to their habitat and evade predation. While having a full understanding of chameleon colors meaning can be tricky, they tend to change colors for some predictable reasons. For example, since chameleons can’t regulate their own body temperatures, they change their skin color to reflect or absorb sunlight and thereby deflect or absorb different amounts of heat. A cold chameleon may darken their skin color to increase heat absorption, while a hot chameleon may lighten their skin color to decrease heat absorption.

When setting up a chameleon’s habitat, be sure to provide them with both a warm basking area and a cooler zone so they can move around to adjust their body temperature as needed. Their exact temperature requirements vary depending on the species. Visit our chameleon shop for solutions to help keep your pet comfortable in their habitat. 

In addition to helping regulate body temperature, changes in the chameleon color chart also may signify a chameleon’s mood. Males will change color to communicate with other chameleons and to signal their emotional state. For instance, the male chameleon’s changing color is a way for them to assert their dominance over other males and to defend their territory. Males typically become brighter when acting dominant and darker when they are feeling aggressive or stressed. Males also become brighter when they are excited, displaying vibrant shades of red, blue and green. Very dark colors, such as black—especially around their throat—may indicate that they feel threatened, angry or ill. Neutral colors, such as light green, blue or brown, may suggest they are relaxed and happy.  Having this general understanding of chameleon colors meaning is important for a chameleon pet parent to ensure their reptile remains happy and healthy. If your pet chameleon’s color appears black for a long period of time, they should be checked out by a veterinarian. Habitat temperatures and light conditions should also be checked to ensure they are at the appropriate levels.

How do chameleons change color?

When you see a chameleon changing color, you probably wonder how they accomplish such an incredible transformation.  Chameleons have multiple layers of skin containing cells called chromatophores, and chromatophores at different levels are filled with different color pigments. 

The deepest layer of skin is composed of chromatophores called melanophores that contain pigments in shades of brown. The second layer houses chromatophores called iridophores that contain blue and green pigments, and the third layer has chromatophores called xanthophores that contain vivid yellow pigments. On top of the xanthophores are erythrophores, which contain red pigments.  When a chameleon experiences a change in mood or environmental temperature, their nervous system signals specific chromatophores to expand or contract, changing the colors of the cell. By altering the size of chromatophores at different levels of skin, the chameleon’s nervous system changes the skin’s color.

Are there other animals that change color? 

Changing colors to reflect changes in environment, emotions, or to indicate attraction to potential mates is a technique quite common in the animal kingdom. In fact, humans do this too—when we are excited, embarrassed or ill, our faces become flushed. We also try to attract mates by using colorful accessories like clothing, hair color and makeup.  

Another animal that uses color change to impress is the majestic peacock. The way a peacock changes color isn’t exactly like a chameleon changing color, but they too display their impressive iridescent plumes to woo potential mates.  

Many sea creatures also have color-changing abilities that are mainly used for hunting or hiding. For example, octopuses often try to blend into the sea background or change their colors to match the color of other sea creatures so that they look less threatening to their prey and are able hide from predators.  

Other animals use bright colors, similar to those in the spectrum of chameleon colors,  to indicate attraction—however, these colors can also be used to signal a warning. Insects, other reptiles, amphibians, mammals and even plants all have species that use color defensively to warn predators to stay away. In nature, often the more colorful animals are, the more likely they are to be poisonous or venomous.  

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Reviewed by Petco’s Animal Care, Education and Compliance (ACE) Team

Petco’s ACE team is a passionate group of experienced pet care experts dedicated to supporting the overall health & wellness of pets. The ACE team works to develop animal care operations and standards across the organization and promote proper animal care and education for Pet Care Center partners and pet parents, while also ensuring regulatory compliance.