“LITTLE man who changes color! Who or what is that?” you may ask. I am a chameleon, a member of the lizard family. Although certain American lizards, named “anoles,” are popularly called “chameleons,” true members of my family live mainly in Africa and Madagascar. Some species of our family may also be found in Europe and Asia.

We chameleons range greatly in size. Some of my relatives are as small as 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) long, while others grow to a length of some two feet (.6 meter).

Here in South Africa, chameleons have been given a variety of names by the different language groups, each highlighting certain characteristics about us. In Afrikaans, I am called either a verkleurmannetjie, meaning “little man who changes color,” or a trapsuutjies, which means to “tread softly.” My Zulu name is derived from the verb “to walk slowly.” All these names are appropriate, as we shall see.

What I Look Like

My body gives the appearance of being rather compressed and tapers into a pointed ridge along my back. And my head? Well, it rests on a short neck that I am unable to turn. To compensate for this, the Creator made my eyes so that they are able to move independently of each other. Just imagine that! I can look straight ahead with one eye, while the other can observe what is happening behind me. Many persons who see me for the first time find this feature rather disconcerting. My eyeballs are large, but my eyelids are fused so that there is only a small opening through which I look for my prey, mainly insects. That my eyelids are so constructed is most helpful to me, since they shield the glint of my eyes from my prey. Otherwise they would soon become aware of me and move out of reach.

We have a variety of “headdresses,” varying from one species to another. Some of us possess helmetlike crests or movable scaly flaps, while others have bony horns or wartlike growths on our snouts. Many people like to believe that we use these in fighting, but they have no evidence of that. It is true, though, that male chameleons like to establish territories and frighten off rival males. How? By inflating their bodies with air and puffing out their throats while opening their mouths. Such a male turns broadside to the rival, who thus gets an exaggerated idea of his opponent’s size and may move away. No doubt the “headdress” adds to the impressive picture created.

Master at Camouflage

Chameleons have the ability to change color in response to emotions such as anger or alarm, or to various stimuli, including heat and light. We may change color from gray to green and brown, and sometimes even yellow. This is an aid to us in camouflaging ourselves. Life Nature Library—The Reptiles (p. 58) explains: “Most chameleons are able to assume colors and patterns that blend into their surroundings.” So, don’t you think that my name “little man who changes color” is most appropriate?

“But,” you may ask, “why the name trapsuutjies (tread softly)?” Well, as I climb on the branches and twigs of the trees and shrubs that I inhabit, I give the impression of feeling my way before taking the next step. My four legs have five toes on each foot, these being divided into two sets. One set of toes points forward, while the other set faces toward the back. Therefore, I use my feet to grasp things, much as you would use tongs. My prehensile tail (one capable of grasping) proves most useful, too. But when I am not using it to grasp a branch, it is usually coiled up behind me.

Sharpshooter of the Reptile World

When stalking an insect, I move forward at what some people have described as a “painfully slow pace.” As I lift each foot in turn, I move it forward and then rock my body back and forth before grasping the next twig. Those who have studied these movements say that, since my compressed body somewhat resembles the shape of a leaf, I mislead my prey into thinking that I am a leaf being disturbed by a breeze. This bluff is most effective.

While using this slow method of approach, I carefully estimate the distance of my prey. I observe the insect from several angles with my remarkable eyes, as it is most important that I get a crack shot the first time I shoot out my amazing tongue.

Once I have moved within striking distance, this long, club-shaped, sticky tongue goes into action. It is controlled by two sets of muscles. One set runs the length of my tongue and keeps it packed in “pleats” on a pointed bone at the back of my mouth, much like a spring coiled on a stick. When I open my mouth, the second set of muscles, which circle my tongue, squeeze it off the bone. As I relax the long muscles, my tongue shoots out at great speed to a distance of about my total length. And with that maneuver I enjoy another tasty insect morsel. No wonder many gardeners are pleased to have me around, especially since we chameleons have voracious appetites. Larger species of chameleons even include birds in their diet.

Increase in the Family

Some female chameleons lay eggs in holes in the ground, making it necessary for them to descend from their perches in trees or shrubs to do this. Usually, some 35 to 40 eggs are laid, and they take about three months to hatch. Other female chameleons, though, are what scientists have termed “ovoviviparous.” In such cases, the female lays eggs in a tree. But, as they are laid, the baby chameleon ruptures the membrane and is therefore “born.” The membrane is sticky and adheres to the twigs of the tree, thus preventing the baby from falling while hatching. The young chameleon immediately grasps a twig and sets about his favorite occupation—hunting for food.

Legends about Me

Many black people in South Africa are afraid of me, although I am quite harmless to man. Some of the rural folk still believe the legend that when God created man He sent the chameleon to tell him never to die. However, because the chameleon walked so slowly, a fast-running lizard overtook him and arrived first to tell man to die. For this reason, these folk hate me and try to kill chameleons. Christians, however, are able to show believers in this legend the true Scriptural reason why mankind grows old and dies.

Well, that is my short story. I hope that you now know me a little better and will appreciate me. As you can see, you need not fear me—this “little man who changes color.”

Credits: Awake 1981 Edition produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses