Veiled Chameleon

Part of the Lizards and Snakes: Alive! exhibition.

Go ahead--blink. In that split second, the Veiled Chameleon can shoot out its tongue, snatch an insect and snap it back in.


Like its relatives, the Veiled Chameleon has a sticky tongue. This tongue is lightning-fast and can be as long as the lizard's body. It is also powerful: some chameleons can grab and haul in insects weighing half as much as they do.


Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) catching an insect
© Stephen Dalton / NHPA


Each small chameleon eye is much more light-sensitive than one of ours, so it can pick up even tiny, faraway movements. And each eye can move by itself--up, down, backward and forward. The effect? This lizard can scan its surroundings without moving its head and scaring off a tasty insect.


For chameleons, color is a complex language. In the Veiled Chameleon, experts see 14 distinct skin areas that change color independently. One combination signals fear or lost combat, another signals sleep. Males and females display different patterns, and other species "speak" different color languages.


No one is quite sure what this "top hat"--really part of the skull--does. It certainly makes the animal look bigger. Perhaps, like the antlers of an elk, it helps the animal attract a mate.


Chameleon feet are well adapted for life on a limb. Look at the feet closely--the toes are fused into two pads so that the chameleon can grip branches, even very thin ones. The grip is helped by the tail, which acts as a fifth limb.

Special cells containing red and yellow color sit under the chameleon's transparent skin. Beneath them are cells that reflect blue and white light, and beneath these are cells containing brown color. The cells change size in response to heat, light--and emotion! A calm animal may be green and an angry one yellow.

Meet the Family

All of the 140 chameleon species-the family Chamaeleonidae--are distinctive looking. They have long, "ballistic" tongues, eyes that operate independently and feet that look like mittens. Their bodies are thin, but tall; this shape keeps the animal's center of gravity over the branch. When threatened they turn sideways to impress intruders with their size.

Namaqua chameleon (Chameleo namaquensis)
© Nigel J. Dennis/Photo Researchers

Namaqua Chameleon

Chamaeleo namaquensis

This animal lives in the hottest, driest area of southwestern Africa. It drinks dew, which collects on its skin and flows in channels from its body to its mouth.

Fast Facts

Name: Veiled Chameleon; Chamaeleo calyptratus
Size: Up to 63 centimeters (24 inches)
Range: Southwestern Arabian peninsula
Diet: Insects, plants, flowers, yellow fruit
Lifespan: 5-8 years