Chameleons are a distinctive and highly specialized group of lizards. There are around 160 species of chameleon, found throughout Africa, Madagascar, and southern Europe, and across south Asia as far as Sri Lanka. Chameleons are easily distinguished from other lizard species by their zygodactylous feet (two toes pointing forwards, two toes pointing backwards), and eyes which are able to point in different directions. They also have tongues which can be shot out to capture prey and many have distinctive crests or horns and a prehensile tail.
Chameleons are infamous for their colour changing abilities, but not all species are able to. The strength of their colour changing also varies between species, with some utilising it as camouflage whereas others utilise it for communication or thermoregulation.
Though they may seem ungainly and obvious when travelling across the ground, chameleons are well adapted to their environments. Most live in foliage, where their zygodactyl feet and tail enable them to climb confident along branches. Combined with a swaying gait and a generally green appearance they are often difficult to spot in their native habitats!
However not all chameleons are arboreal. Most species from the subfamily Brookesiinae, live low in vegetation or on the ground. They tend to be brown with cryptic colouration which camouflages them amongst leaf litter.
Chameleons vary greatly in size and body structure, from 15mm (0.59in) in male Brookesia micra (one of the world’s smallest reptiles) to 68.5cm (27.0in) in the male Furcifer oustaleti.
Due to their interesting appearance several species are commonly kept within captivity. However they are not easy to keep in captivity and many do not thrive unless husbandry exacts replicates their native habitats. The importation of wild individuals often results in the death of hundreds of animals as the conditions in which they are transported as substandard. Overcollection for the pet trade is also a threat to some species wild populations. On the other hand other species have been introduced to Hawaii, California, and Florida, where populations of non-native reptiles impact the native habitat.