ocp chameleon guide tablet mockup (1)

Get Your FREE Owner's Guide For Chameleons And Help Your Special Friend Live its Best Life.

How Fast Do Chameleons Change Colors

Have you noticed your chameleon changing colors?

Do you wonder if chameleons can change color as quickly as you might have seen in movies or videos?

If you are interested in the changing color of chameleons, one of your first questions might be:

How fast do chameleons change color?

Chameleons can change color rapidly, sometimes with speeds as fast as 20 seconds. Depending on the situation, in some species, color changes are even faster.

Keep reading this article for more information about how fast chameleons change color.

how fast do chameleons change colors

How Fast Do Chameleons Change Color

We have all seen commercials, movies, or tv shows showing an almost instant change to any color for a chameleon.

Those are an exaggeration of the chameleon’s unique ability to change their color, but the color-changing effect does happen rather quickly.

Chameleons can change color fully in as short as 20 seconds, but it depends on a lot of variables.

Some of these include the species of chameleon and the need to change.

We will touch on more of why a chameleon changes color later in this article, but if a chameleon is feeling threatened or is trying to display dominance, the speed of the change is very rapid.

How Do They Change Color

Understanding how chameleons change color has developed over time.

Originally, scientists thought chameleons changed color by using specialized cells containing different pigments.

Now, after further research, scientists have found chameleons use a system of cells called iridophore cells containing nanocrystals to reflect wavelengths of light through their skin.

Those nanocrystals vary in size and are also arranged in different shapes and groupings.

When the chameleon is excited or relaxed, the nanocrystals will expand or contract, depending on the mood, allowing those wavelengths to become visible.

If the animal is excited, the cells will move and be farther apart, creating longer wavelengths of light.

These longer wavelengths produce reds and yellows, giving the brighter, vivid colors you might see in chameleons.

If your chameleon is calm and relaxed, the cells will swell, creating shorter wavelengths.

Blues and yellows are produced from these shorter wavelengths, mixing to produce the green hue you will commonly see in chameleons. 

The layers of cells containing the nanocrystals allow some chameleons to produce those bright colors and patterns these animals are known for.

Researchers have also determined males are better able to change colors than females because they have more iridophore cells in the upper skin layer.

Not every species of chameleon does change color, but most species do, even if it is very subtle.

Why Do They Change Color

Chameleons can change color with great speed, but why do they need to?

Changing color is commonly thought to be a way to camouflage themselves and stay hidden in their environment.

Most chameleons will have already developed a body shape and color to blend in with their native environment, and their slow speed only helps them stay hidden.

Researchers have determined chameleons’ color-changing ability allows these animals to communicate with others and also to regulate their body temperatures.

There are a few species who do not change color, but most will even if it is just subtle variations of their normal brown and green.


When it comes to communication, changes in a chameleon’s color will signal if they are frightened, angry, or even if a male is trying to impress a female.

Chameleons are highly territorial, and changing colors allows males to signal other males to stay away.

To display their dominance, male chameleons will display a variety of vivid and bold colors.

This will tell weaker males, who are smaller and have dimmer color displays; they cannot compete, and once they realize they need to concede, their color displays will stop.

When it comes to reproduction, color is an important indicator for both males and females.

Males will put on brilliant displays with vivid colors if they are trying to impress a female and begin the mating process.

If a female is open to accepting the advances of a male, she will remain closer to her normal coloring but might add in a pinkish hue.

A dark color will indicate to the male chameleon she is not interested.

Color changes allow the chameleon to give social cues to other members of their species.

Regulating Temperatures

Like other reptiles, chameleons are ectotherms, meaning they cannot retain body heat and regulate their body on their own.

Changing colors will help chameleon regulate their body temperature.

If they are too hot or too cold, the change in color will allow them to absorb or reflect heat from the sun to make sure they are at optimal temperature.

When a chameleon is too hot, it will turn a pale color, so the rays from the sun will be reflected.

If they are feeling cold, the chameleon will turn a dark color to help absorb the rays of the sun and warm up.

Think of their skin as a kind of thermostat to help with body temperature control.

This change allows the chameleon to adapt to changes in their environment.

Color Changing Limitations

The world has exaggerated the abilities of the chameleon to change color.

They cannot change their color to exactly match any background.

Chameleons will change color depending on their mood and their temperature, not their background, but even the color changes they go through are dependent on their species.

Not every species of chameleon will change to the vivid colors you might see in pictures.

They also don’t stay bright and colorful all of the time.


Chameleons are widely known for their ability to change color, but this characteristic has been widely exaggerated.

The speed of the color changes in chameleons is very quick, sometimes as short as 20 seconds or less, but unlike common belief, this doesn’t happen to match the environment.

After reading this article, we hope you have a better understanding of the speed of the color changes chameleons undergo.

Leave a Comment