Wandering Eyes

Author: Ryan Johnston

Chameleon on safari with Wandering Thru in Africa

If you have ever had the pleasure of being out on a safari in the warmer months of the year, you may have been lucky enough to come across a chameleon. Whether it be an individual crossing the road after the rains or a magic spot by a tracker guide using a spotlight on an evening safari, it is always special to see. Chameleons have fascinated people for many years, as the belief has always been that they can change all different colours, but this is not the case. They can change color, but not to the extent that was once believed.

Some of the local tribes are actually petrified of chameleons. Not because of their ability to change their colour, but rather because of their ability to look in two directions at the same time. Locals believed that because of this, they were able to look into the past and the future at the same time, a bad omen that only traditional healers should be able to do. Here are some facts to help understand these amazing little creatures.

Colour change

These amazing lizards are well known for their ability to change color. The colour change itself is not due to their surroundings but rather a response to external conditions. To put it simply, they are more like mood rings. Animals that are stressed or sick will turn dark; aggressive chameleons can display contrasting dark and light colour patterns. Males can display vivid colours when showing off to a potential mate as well.

The colour changes themselves come from special cells under the epidermis (top layer of skin), known as chromataphores and melanophores. Both are special skin cells that contain different pigments within them. The colour change itself is brought about by the re-arranging of these cells, controlled by nerves.

Chameleon on safari with Wandering Thru in Africa

Wandering eyes

The most important sense for a chameleon and the best evolved is their sense of sight. Hearing is out of the question as they do not have external ear openings or eardrums. With regards to their eyes, though, they have a very sensitive retina, a highly developed optical nerve, and an enlarged optical lobe of the brain. Their specially designed eye sockets allow their eyes to move independently and in two directions at the same time. This gives them a 360-degree view, and they can see everywhere, besides directly behind the head, without having to move the head. This allows the animal to remain dead still while searching for prey, making them incredibly stealthy.

The way that their brains can deal with looking in two directions at once has not been confirmed and is still a mystery. It is thought, though, that they get split-second imagery. The eyes only come together when they are locked on a target, and this is believed to help with depth perception while hunting.

Useful tails and feet

Unlike other lizards, chameleons do not practice autotomy (losing the tail) to escape predators. If they lose their tails, they do not grow back. Sometimes this does happen, though, but the animal can learn to adapt. The tail itself is very strong and can be used to hold on to branches, and some species will even use it to pull themselves up.

Their feet are specially adapted for climbing, and we find that their toes are fused. On the front foot, the two outer and three inner digits are fused. On the back foot, it is the other way around, with the three outer and two inner toes being fused. This allows for a perfectly shaped little clasping foot, allowing them to climb really well.

Spring-loaded tongue

The long tongue of a chameleon is well known; it can be as long, if not longer, than the body itself in some species. It is spring-loaded in the back of the mouth and controlled by specialised bones and muscles. People often say the tongue is sticky, but this is not the case. The tip of the tongue is thickened and covered in saliva. When it is shot out and connects with prey, this acts as a wet suction cup, helping stick the prey to the tongue. This movement is quick, and once trapped, prey has very little chance of escape. Chameleons mainly have an insectivorous diet, but some of the larger species have been known to eat small mammals and birds. The Namaqua chameleon found in the arid regions of Southern Africa has been known to take other lizards as well. 

Chameleon on safari with Wandering Thru in Africa

Predation

There are a few species that feed on chameleons, mainly snakes and birds. Boomslang and vine snakes seem to have a taste for their fellow reptiles. Birds like starlings, shrikes, and hornbills will happily gobble them down. It has been witnessed where starlings and hornbills will catch them, killing them by smashing them against a branch or rock. Common fiscals have even been recorded impaling them on thorns, stashing them to be fed on later. Juvenile chameleons can even fall prey to large predatory insects and even spiders.

If a chameleon feels that it is under threat, especially from a snake or small animal climbing to get to it, they have been known to jump. Throwing themselves to the ground, they try to make a hasty retreat.

People often believe that they are very slow animals, but this is not the case, and they can move very quickly if they need to. Their run isn’t the most athletic but is more than enough to get them out of harm’s way, especially if they have a head start. They do have that slow, staggering gate most of the time. It is thought that they do this to mimic a leaf blowing in the wind and to confuse any predator that may see them.

Conclusion

Chameleons are remarkable lizards that have intrigued us for many years. Stories have been built around them, and beliefs from many cultures have been brought about. There are almost 160 species, with most being found mainly in Madagascar and Africa. It is definitely something to keep an eye out for on safaris in the future.

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