In popular culture, chameleons are considered masters of disguise. They can swiftly change their body coloration and thus blend in with their environment. But chameleons can also alter their appearance when expressing aggression and, in the case of males, when courting a female. So, which has driven the evolution of the chameleon’s ability to change its livery — camouflage or communication?

If camouflage, one would predict that species living in environments with greater color variation — richer in shades of browns and greens — should have a greater capacity to switch colors. But when measuring color change in 21 species of dwarf chameleons, Devi Stuart-Fox at the University of the Witwatersrand and Adnan Moussalli at the University of KwaZulu Natal, in South Africa, found little support for that prediction.

The investigators staged contests between males within each species and, using algorithms that model visual systems, measured how conspicuous a chameleon would appear to other chameleons — and to hungry wild birds. As seen through chameleons' eyes, as well as through the eyes of their avian predators, the greater a chameleon's color spectrum, the more it stood out.

There is little doubt that chameleons in the presence of predators can adopt the hue of their background and thus hide themselves, but this study suggests that, at least in some species, the lizards' striking color changes are first and foremost signals, not cloaks.

The study was detailed in the journal PLoS Biology.

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