Do Lizards Change Color?

Do Lizards Change Color

Yes, they do. Many but not all lizards change color. In this post, I will tell you all you need to know about lizards and their skins and how the ones that are capable of changing color are doing it.

Let’s dive in. 

Do Lizards Change Their Color?

Absolutely! Many lizards can change their color. Examples include chameleons and anoles. There are also many lizards that cannot change their color. But today we are focusing on those that can change color.

Lizards that can change color, usually do so to camouflage and escape predators or to camouflage and attack prey. Lizards that can change colors are also known to do so to attract mates. Lizards also change their colors to be able to absorb more heat from the sun.

Some lizard species can change their color from a bright color to a dark color or from a dark color to a bright color. Some lizard species can also make the patterns or lines on their skin to disappear and reappear. It is important to note that lizards don’t change their colors randomly. They do so with a specific purpose as explained in the paragraph above. 

How Exactly Do Lizards Change Their Colors?

Lizard species that can change their colors e.g. anoles and chameleons have got melanophores in their skin. Melanophores are special pigment cells that enable color change. The concentration or number of pigment granules in melanophores are the ones that dictate the color that a lizard that can change its color can produce. 

Generally, lizards that can change their color appear brighter when there is a high concentration of pigment granules in their melanophores and appear darker when the granules are dispersed. 

As mentioned in the section above, lizards that can change their color are many. However, only two are known to have exceptional color-changing capability – the Veiled Chameleon and the Panther Chameleon.

‘Do Lizards Change Color?’ The Chameleon Example

As mentioned in the section above, chameleons are renowned for the color-changing ability. In general, chameleons only change their colors when they want to hide from predators or in response to environmental or temperature changes. 

Before I tell you how exactly chameleons change their color, let me share with you some fast facts about chameleons. 

  1. Chameleons are lizards (reptiles) and but they are distinguished from other lizard species by the unique shape of their heads, their thin feet, and their fast tongues.
  2. Chameleon species and populations are found mainly in Africa, Southern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent. 
  3. Several North American lizard species. The lizards are scientifically known as anoles but they are also referred to as chameleons because of their color-changing ability. While anoles are not chameleons, they are closely related.
  4. Chameleons have a fast, long and sticky tongue that they use to trap and swallow insects. 
  5. There are over 100 chameleon species known to man. They are slightly different in appearance but they can all change their color to some degree.
  6. Many male chameleons have three horns that they utilize to fight predators and other chameleons. 

Now you know more about chameleons than the average person, it is time to discover how they change their color. 

How Do Chameleons Change Their Color?

For many years, people believed that chameleons use pigment-containing cells (melanophores) in their skins to change their color. While this is true, new research shows that melanophores play only a minor role in helping chameleons change their color. The cells that play a major role in helping chameleons change their color are iridophores.

Iridophores help chameleons change their color by manipulating light just like prisms do. So to understand how chameleons change color, one must understand how prisms manipulate light. 

A prism is a triangular box normally made of glass. When light enters a prism, it gets split into separate colors. The splitting of light into separate colors is known as dispersion. Prisms can disperse light because when light travels through a vacuum the different color lights in it travel at the same speed. But when light travels in different materials such as glass, the different-color lights in it travel at different speeds hence they get split and visible. 

In other words, when light hits a prism, it gets refracted and the different-color lights in it such as red color, yellow color, and so on travel at different speeds because they are slowly differently. This is what makes them visible.

As mentioned above, iridophores (cells in the skin of chameleons) help chameleons to change their color by manipulating light just like prisms do. While iridophores are not made of glass, they are made of countless guanine crystals. Chameleons such as the panther chameleon have got two layers of iridophores in their skin. And the arrangement of guanine crystals in the top layer determines what wavelength of white is reflected and seen as the chameleon’s color.

In other words, what I am trying to say is that many chameleons can change their color by changing the arrangement and distancing of guanine crystals in their iridophores. And the change in the arrangement/ distancing of guanine crystals affects which wavelengths of white light are reflected and seen as a chameleon’s color.

According to scientists, while the manipulation of melanophores (pigment-containing cells) also helps chameleons to change their color, it is the manipulation of iridophores that largely determines what color is seen. 

So the answer to the question “How do chameleons change their color?” is that they change it by manipulating the arrangement of guanine crystals in the iridophores in their skin and that different arrangements of crystals result in the reflection of different colors.

How Do Other Lizards Change their Colors?

Most lizards that can change their colors change their colors in the same way chameleons change their colors. They do it by changing how natural pigments (e.g. melanin) are distributed in their skin cells or by manipulating how crystals are arranged in certain skin cells (iridophores) so as to alter how their skins reflect light. 

So other lizards are not very different from chameleons in terms of how they change their colors. And this is understandable because naturally there shouldn’t a substantial difference in how chameleons and lizards change their color since chameleons are lizards. 

Many of the lizards that cannot change their colors cannot do so because they do not have crystals in their skin to manipulate and reflect different colors. They also cannot manipulate the natural pigments in their skin cells to look different. 

Why Do Lizards Change Their Color?

Contrary to what many people believe, lizards do not change their colors on command; they do not make a conscious decision to change their colors. Their colors change in response to their surroundings. So color-changing lizards consistently assess their surroundings and trigger the change of their skin color by way of hormones when they see something that requires that change of color.

What I am trying to say is that the surroundings is the reason why lizards change their color. For example, some color-changing lizards can detect it is still a bit cold when they are basking in the sun and they will subconsciously change their color from bright to dark to absorb more light. 

Many lizards change their skin color include when they need to hide from predators, when they need to ambush prey, and when they are looking to attract mates/ mating partners. So these are the ‘surroundings’ that make them change their skin color. 

Related Questions

How Many Lizard Species Exist and How Many Change Color?

There are thousands of lizard species known to man. As of now, nearly 6,000 lizard species are documented. The species are different in terms of appearance, size, weight, lifespan, and so on and so forth. Examples of lizards include geckos, chameleons, anoles, iguanas, monitor lizards, and skinks. 

The number of lizard species that can change color has not been officially studied. However, many species of chameleons and anoles are known color changers. 

Where are Color Changing Lizards Found in the World?

There are many color-changing lizards in the world. They are probably not so easy to see and document because they camouflage so well. Probably just about every continent around the globe has got color changing lizards. 

The two most known groups of color-changing lizards are chameleons and anoles. Chameleons are found in Africa, Southern Europe, the Indian Subcontinent, and a few other places. While anoles are native to North America.

Are Color-Changing Lizards Solitary or Social Creatures?

Most lizards including color-changing lizards are solitary creatures. They like living solo. Therefore, if you get a color-changing lizard as a pet, you will not need to look for a partner for it.

Do Color-Changing Lizards See Color?

Yes, they do. Most animals, especially lower form animals such as lizards, do not see as many colors. However, some lizards see many colors and they include chameleons: the most famous color-changing lizards. Some chameleons can see more colors than humans can including ultraviolet, which humans cannot see. 

So the answer to the question “Do Color-Changing Lizards See Color?” is yes they do. 

Are Color-Changing Lizards Venomous?

Only a handful of lizard species are known to be venomous. They include the Gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard. However, these two lizards are not color-changing lizards. 

The best known color-changing lizards are chameleons and anoles and they are both not venomous.

What Types of Food Do Color-Changing Lizards Eat?

Color-changing lizards do not get their color-changing ability from the food they eat. The foods they eat are not very different from the foods other lizards eat or prefer. 

Color-changing lizards such as chameleons and anoles like eating insects such as crickets, stick insects, grasshoppers, mantids, and locusts. Some chameleons are cannibalistic, while others eat small birds. A few chameleons are also known to chew on plant matter.

Do Chameleons Like Basking In The Sun?

Yes, they do. Chameleons like basking in the sun just like all other lizards. This is probably the reason why they are mostly found in Africa, Southern Europe, and the Indian subcontinent.

Is It Legal To Keep a Chameleon As a Pet In the US?

Yes, it is legal to keep many chameleon species as a pet in the United States. However, there are some chameleons that are protected species. You are not supposed to keep them as a pet. They include the veiled chameleon. 

To be on the safe side, you should never capture chameleons or any other wild animals and take them home to keep as pets. This is usually illegal. If you want a chameleon to keep as a pet, you should go to a reputable pet store that sells captive-bred chameleons. This is because reputable pet stores are usually inspected frequently so therefore it is unlikely that they will sell illegal chameleons.

Is It Legal To Keep a Chameleon As a Pet In the UK?

There are many exotic pets people are allowed to keep in the United Kingdom including chameleons. So you can keep a chameleon as a pet in the United Kingdom. 

Why Do Chameleons Have Horns?

Some chameleons have two or even three horns to fight attackers. 


Many lizards change color for different reasons. The most popular examples of lizards that change color are chameleons and anoles. Most lizards that change color do so with the help of the melanophores (pigment-containing cells) and iridophores (crystal containing cells) in their skin. In the past, it was believed that melanophores played the biggest role in helping lizards change color, however, recent studies have shown that iridophores play the biggest role in helping lizards including chameleons change color.

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