Grasping mitten-like feet, rotating independently-movable eyes and incredibly variable colour hardly compare to the chameleons extraordinary tongue.


Natural Curiosities Clip


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Lacertilia
Infraorder: Iguania
Family: Chamaeleonidae


The word "chameleon" stems from the Greek "khamailé?n" which means "on the ground" and "lion". Chameleons are so odd, with their incredible characteristics, that they were thought to be a hodge-podge of different animals sent to spy on us by the devil. Sir David Attenborough, in David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities, describes this chimera as "the tail of a monkey, the skin of a crocodile, the tongue of a toad, the horns of a rhinoceros and the eyes of... who knows what."

Chameleon and extended tongue

Chameleon and extended tongue

The Tongue

One of the characteristic traits of the chameleon is it's extraordinary projectile tongue. The tongue sits on a hollow, cartilaginous rod which allows for muscles to rapidly contract around and fire the soft, elastic tissue of the tongue towards it's prey. The thick, weighted tip has tiny protrusions which attach to the prey dragging it back into its awaiting mouth.

Rotating Eyes

Alongside the tongue, the chameleons incredible, rotating eyes work independently to allow the chameleon to look both backwards and forwards, or up and down, or left and right at the same time. The brain rapidly flicks between the image signals sent from each eye, as such not viewing them in one continuous picture, but independently.

Both eyes looking forward, creating a binocular image, usually precede the flick of its tongue towards prey.

The tail of a monkey, the skin of a crocodile, the tongue of a toad, the horns of a rhinoceros and the eyes of... who knows what.

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities


Although originally though to be a simple camouflage technique, chameleons can actually also use their changeable colour to signal their emotional state and interact with other individuals.

A special cell, called a chromatophore, control the colour of the chameleon. These cells can contract over three different layers of skin, moving pigment between the layers. This enables different colour pigment to come to the fore, or be masked underneath, allowing for the change in colour.

Quick Facts

  • The tongue only takes 20 milliseconds to reach its prey.
  • A chameleon's eyelids are fused, leaving only a tiny hole for its pupil.
  • Chameleons are able to utilise a range of different colours from pink to blue, to yellow, to black.
  • The tiny chameleon, Brookesia micra, is only 2.9cm long.
  • They can be found wild in Africa, Europe, and Asia.
  • They have also been introduced to Hawaii and mainland North America.