Are you fascinated by the color-changing abilities of chameleons?
Have you watched videos of chameleons changing themselves to match the sand, rocks, and even colorful carpets?
Chameleons are true marvels of the animal kingdom with the ability to change the color of their skin to reflect their surroundings.
For curious minds, this incredible ability raises an odd question:
What color is a chameleon in a mirror?
A male chameleon will turn dark shades of red, orange, and yellow when confronted with his reflection in a mirror, while female chameleons will either turn more subtle shades of reds than the male or not change color at all.
Read on to learn more about how and why chameleons change color, and what happens when a chameleon looks in a mirror.
How Chameleons Change Color
Have you ever wondered how exactly chameleons can perform their legendary color-changing feats?
For many years, scientists around the world thought chameleons achieved their various shades by manipulating pigments in their skin, like the octopus.
Now they know the secret lies in cells deep beneath the chameleon’s skin called iridophores.
Chameleons use cells called iridophores, which are crystal-like structures beneath the skin, to change their colors.
These iridophores change the way light reflects off the chameleon’s skin and result in the brilliant displays of color we see.
By relaxing or exciting their skin, chameleons can manipulate two separate layers of iridophores below their skin to create distinct colors.
Relaxed and Unrelaxed Color
Chameleons relax their skin when they are engaged in non-stressful activities, such as lying in a tree or hanging out in the sun.
In this state, the noncrystals in the iridophores are close together.
When these nanocrystals are closer together, they reflect shorter wavelengths of light, resulting in cooler colors like blue and green.
Chameleons excite their skin in more stressful situations like attracting a mate or confronting another male.
When the iridophores are excited, they are much further apart, and they reflect longer wavelengths of light resulting in reds, oranges, and yellows.
Why Chameleons Change Color
While you may have heard chameleons use their color to camouflage themselves, scientists have proven chameleons do not only use their unique ability to blend in with their surroundings.
Chameleons change color for a few lesser-known reasons as well.
Here are the reasons a chameleon will change color.
Chameleons are known to change their colors to blend in with their surroundings when threatened by a predator.
Without natural defenses like poison in their skin or lightning-quick movements, chameleons must keep a low profile and camouflage themselves well.
However, contrary to popular belief, chameleons only make small, subtle color changes to better blend into their surroundings, and cannot change themselves to match specific patterns.
Most chameleons are already well camouflaged in their natural state without needing to make any changes to their color.
The loud, dramatic color changes are a result of different motivations.
#2 Attracting or Rejecting a Mate
The bright, mesmerizing colors we love to see on chameleons often come out when they are trying to attract a mate – or when they’re turning one down.
Male chameleons will turn bright shades of red, orange, and yellow when they are around other males to assert their dominance.
This is why male chameleons will turn these colors when presented with their reflection; they think their reflection is another male and change their colors to warn their competition off.
Male chameleons have even been known to change their colors into the more muted greens and blues of female chameleons to sneak by other aggressive male chameleons.
Female chameleons use their colors to show whether or not they are interested in attracting a mate.
When their colors are more subdued, it means they are open to displays from male chameleons.
When their colors are bright, they signal to males, they are already pregnant and should be left alone.
This is especially important because male chameleons are known to be aggressive with females.
#3 Temperature Control
One of the most recent discoveries is chameleons also use their color-changing abilities to regulate their internal temperature.
Chameleons are ectotherms, which means they aren’t able to generate and contain heat from their metabolism alone.
When their color is darker, they absorb more sunlight and increase their resting temperature.
When they get too hot, they can lighten their hues to reflect the sun and stay cool.
This is likely another evolutionary result of the chameleon’s color-changing abilities, and a lucky one, helps these lizards adapt to their environments.
You can often tell what a chameleon’s mood is by the color of its skin.
A submissive or relaxed chameleon will exhibit darker colors of green and brown.
These colors are intended to convey a chameleon is not a threat.
A chameleon neutral or relaxed will appear to have brown and green tones to match their environment.
Chameleon’s are most commonly these colors as much of a chameleon’s day is in a relaxed or neutral state.
When a chameleon is excited or agitated for any reason, it will turn yellow, orange, and red.
Chameleons are incredible creatures, able to change their colors by exciting or relaxing the nanocrystals called iridophores under their skin.
These nanocrystals change wavelengths of light the chameleons reflects, which results in brilliant color changes.
Chameleons change their colors for a variety of reasons, including camouflage, attracting and rejecting mates, temperature control, and mood.
When a male chameleon sees itself in a mirror, it will excite its skin and turn red, orange, and yellow, because it thinks its reflection is a rival male.
When a female chameleon sees itself in the mirror, it will either only subtly change its color or not change its color at all, as female chameleons are less aggressive.