Wild Chameleons of Manhattan by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen

WILD CHAMELEONS OF MANHATTAN

Chameleons are celebrated for their color-changing skills, which are unsurpassed among tetrapods. A

widespread misconception understands these color changes to enhance the animal’s camouflage,

something like the lizards in this whimsical painting. Actually, they serve to help the animals

thermoregulate (the skin turns darker to help warm the lizard, and lightens to allow it to cool), and to

send various visual signals to other members of their species, such as sexual receptivity or non-

receptivity, aggression, etc. At first blush, it may seem odd that non-social reptiles like chameleons

should evolve such an elegant adaptation. My guess is that the original driving adaptation was quick

and effective thermoregulatory color change, which would confer an adaptive benefit to slow-moving

arboreal reptiles whose ability to move from one microclimate to another was severely restricted.

While no reptiles are known to change color to match their surroundings, a number of cephalopods

appear to be able to do this strikingly well.

Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen

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