Science Questions

What colour is a dead chameleon?

Sun, 18th Dec 2011

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Question

Peter, Germany asked:

What colour is a dead chameleon?

Answer

Helen -   Chameleons are fantastic.  If you've ever seen a chameleon, especially in the wild, they are fabulous things.  I've seen the biggest chameleon in the world and one of the smallest chameleons in the world when I was in Madagascar.  The biggest ones are a good foot long and called Parson’s chameleon –  huge great big green things usually -  and Pygmy chameleons which are so small, they'd sit quite happily on your little finger, they do a great job of just making themselves look like leaves.

But actually, an interesting point about chameleons and their colours is that, although we use the word "chameleon" to mean camouflage and to mean hiding away, this is a bit of a myth.  In fact, recently scientists and researchers figured out that chameleons really use colour to show off and to talk to each other.  Males will fight each other and they will use bright colours to communicate.  Females and males will interact using colour.  Hiding away and camouflaging themselves against their background actually isn't the main reason that chameleons have colour.  They can make themselves look very bright by having different pigments in their skin and different layers of reds, and yellows, blues, whites, and there's a neural signal that will cause those cells to essentially expand and contract, and reveal different combinations of colours and then that's how they get these coloration.  

I haven’t seen a dead one myself and I asked my friends who’ve worked in Madagascar which is where there are lots of chameleons and they haven’t seen a dead one either.  I can only assume, that given its a neural control, a nerve control, that gives these bright colours, that once those nerves stop, I would’ve thought they would relax back to the unexcited state.  They're a browny, quite drab coloration that would generally just blend them in and not shout out, “Hey, look at me.  I'm a fantastic male.”

Chris -   Helen MacClennan got in touch and she said, “Thought I’d let you know the colour of a dead chameleon.  Unfortunately, my Nosy be Panther chameleon died earlier in the year.  He was usually a bright coloured chameleon, blue, white, green, and yellow.  But when he passed away, he went to very dark black or brown colour and from my understanding, this is the normal colour of dead chameleon.”

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