How does a chameleon change color to blend with its surroundings as a protective measure?

Chameleons are vastly known for their color-changing abilities. You must’ve seen this phenomenon in movies and animations. It’s amazing how a small lizard-like animal can hold such great power. Between the process of turning green in order to hide, and red to show anger, there is something quite catchy about it. But as amazing as this is, there is a mechanism behind this, too. How does this happen, and what is its significance? Let’s discuss it!

While it is true that only chameleon is blessed with the powers of color-changing abilities, the theory that it can take on any color is nothing but a myth. People assume that this animal can camouflage whenever it requires blending with the background. And, even though it might have been cooler that way, there is still no scientific evidence of such a thing. This action is entirely scientific, determined by certain factors.

The action of color changes is dependent on the temperature and sunlight availability in the surrounding atmosphere. Moreover, the mental state of the chameleon also affects the color of its skin. For example, a green chameleon sitting before the green background of leaves will not put on grey color to merge with the color of the tree trunk on shifting its position! It will remain green provided that the mentioned conditions don’t alter.

Another thing that affects the color-changing power of chameleon is its body state. This process doesn’t just happen when there are optimum conditions. This is a physiological process and requires certain body reactions to achieve it. 

Rough epidermis (outer skin) of a chameleon contains cells known as chromatophores that have pigments in them. They can take on yellow, red, blue, and brown hues. Some of these pigments are concentrated in small clusters under various parts of the skin, whereas some are spread evenly beneath the skin in the form of minute particles. 

The color assumed by the chameleon depends upon the pigments of which colors have been spread and which have been pulled back. For example, if the red pigment is spread beneath the entire skin and the rest are held back, the chameleon appears red. You can say that it more or less works like a desktop printer.

At this point, a question would naturally arise: What causes the spreading of a particular pigmentation while holding back other pigments? 

Well, this mechanism requires special chemicals called hormones. These are body secretions that are released in all animals, including humans, to carry out certain body functions. And, the organ that secretes them is called a gland. The glands are located at different parts of the body, and whenever there is a need for a certain reaction, they release their specific hormones. 

The hormones produced by the pituitary gland of the chameleon are found to be responsible for the camouflage process. When the conditions change along with the mental state of the animal, it triggers the gland to release its hormones. As a result of which, the color is instantly changed to blend with the surroundings. However, the scientists have no answer to describe how the chameleon’s hormones spread pigments of some color while holding back those of the other colors. 

Right now, we have discovered up to 100 different species of chameleon that can change color. Surprisingly, they cannot do this consciously. Therefore, if you used to assume that chameleon has natural powers, unfortunately, it is not true. Nature has not delegated chameleon the capability to change color at their will – but has reserved this power in its own hands.