It might come as a surprise to know that chameleons don't change color to blend in with their jungle backgrounds; they change color as a response to being agitated or excited. And when chameleons change color, they aren't trying to hide; they're trying to express their mood. In essence, they're communicating.
Chameleons have some of the most complex and colorful skin of all animals. Scientists have learned more about how chameleons change color, and they're hoping to imitate that process in synthetic materials, but because chameleon skin is so complex, this is no easy task.
This is what chameleon skin looks like with 19,000 times magnification. (Photo: KQED)
KQED explains, "Just beneath the chameleon’s skin is a layer of cells called iridophores. These cells contain microscopic salt crystals, which are arranged in a three-dimensional pattern like oranges stacked on a fruit stand. When light hits the crystals, some wavelengths are absorbed and some are reflected. The result, to our eyes, is the beautiful rainbow of colors on the chameleon’s skin. But what we’re actually seeing is light that is bouncing off of these tiny crystals. What we perceive as green, for example, is blue wavelengths of light being reflected off the crystals and through the layer of yellow xanthophore cells in the chameleon’s epidermis. The result is bright green skin that contains no green pigment!"
Here's a fantastic video explaining the process of how a chameleon changes color. It will give you a whole new appreciation for a miraculous art form in the animal kingdom.
"Like many animals, chameleons can see a wider range of light than humans can, including ultraviolet light. That means the color changes that we can see are just the beginning. In fact, chameleons have developed a whole language of color that extends far beyond what we can understand," says Jason Jaacks of KQED.
Chameleons are more of a marvel than we ever thought, and there's still so much to learn about these charismatic creatures.