This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, gives us the lowdown on Boy George's favourite reptile - the chameleon.
If you have visited the Robot Zoo already, you will have seen we are currently home to, among other things, a huge, robotic chameleon. It’s about 20 times life size - if you take average chameleon species’ sizes into consideration - and it demonstrates perfectly what fascinates us most about chameleons: their ability to change colour, their bulging eyes, and their massive tongues. If you haven’t visited yet, I can easily entice you by letting you know that you can interact with this giant reptile, and control all of the above features yourself.
The Real McCoy
The lovely pair of specimens shown here are on display in the Natural History Gallery and are Mediterranean Chameleons (Chamaeleo chamaeleon). They are thought to date back to the 1930s and have maintained their beautiful speckled skin due to a healthy (actually incredibly unhealthy for humans) coating of arsenic.
In life, male Mediterranean Chameleons colour can vary from green, through brown, to grey. The females have an even larger repertoire which includes yellow, orange, and even green spots during the mating season. The ability to change colour is very important to a chameleon as changing colour can help regulate its body temperature, which of course reptiles can’t do automatically like mammals can. You’ll never find a sweaty chameleon. It can also change colour to make itself stand out if it wants to attract a mate, or ward off a rival. Or if threatened it can, to a certain extent, blend into its surroundings.
Speaking of threats, the Mediterranean Chameleon’s primary predators, besides humans capturing them for the pet trade, are domestic cats, snakes, and…each other. They may look like a cute cartoon character but an adult chameleon will eat a juvenile if it catches one.
The giant tongue, to which I referred earlier, can be twice the length of the body and they project it at such a speed that it can nab a fly right out of the air, just like Mr. Myagi with chopsticks.
For this, they rely on the fact that they have incredible eyesight, but they can also move each eye independently of the other. Personally, I don’t get how this doesn’t blow their brain. I can play Lego Batman on the XBox whilst watching re-runs of Star Trek, but that’s as chameleon as I’ll ever get.