Africa, Madagascar, Spain and Portugal, and Asia


Rain forest, savanna, semi-desert, and steppe

Beautiful lizards

In the reptile world, there are some bizarre shapes and colors, but some of the most striking variations are found in the chameleons. These colorful lizards are known for their ability to change their color; their long, sticky tongue; and their eyes, which can be moved independently of each other.

Where is home?

All chameleons are found in the Old World, but most live in Madagascar and Africa. The rest are found in the Middle East, a few on islands in the Indian Ocean, and one, the Indian chameleon, in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Another, the common chameleon, is native to Spain, Portugal, the islands in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Near East.

Chameleons live in a variety of habitats, from rain forests and lowlands to deserts, semi-deserts, scrub savannas, and even mountains. Many inhabit trees, but some live in grass or on small bushes, fallen leaves, or dry branches.

Namaqua chameleons live in Africa’s Namib Desert, where they dig holes in sand dunes to escape the extreme heat and cold. Sail-fin chameleons inhabit the montane forests of Cameroon, in West Africa, where mountains rise to cloud level and are shrouded in fog; it’s a cool, wet, dripping place of little sun.

The egg of the rare Parson's chameleon is believed to take up to two years to hatch.
A chameleon's tongue can be shot out to an extraordinary length: in some species the tongue is longer than the body.
Chameleons seem to prefer running water to still water.
The name chameleon means earth lion and comes from the Greek words “chamai” (on the ground, on the earth) and “leon” (lion).
Chameleons shed their skin in pieces. How often they shed depends on how quickly they grow.

In 1965, the San Diego Zoo’s first chameleon’s arrived: Parson’s and Madagascan flap-necked chameleons. Jackson’s chameleons entered our collection in 1971.

The Zoo received its first two pairs of veiled chameleons in 1990. A month later, we acquired another pair, and soon realized that two of them cannot be kept in the same enclosure. In fact, males cannot be within sight of each other from any distance, because they continually threaten one another, creating too much stress to keep them healthy.

All six gained weight quickly, but one female kept on growing. After a few months, it was obvious that “she” was really a male. We called him the Hulk. Later that year, we welcomed our first hatchlings: 34 babies emerged from 54 eggs laid. We may have been the first zoo to exhibit and breed veiled chameleons in the US.

Currently, there are no chameleons at the Zoo. Read about a former Zoo resident, a Parson’s chameleon named Big Daddy.

Madagascar is home to nearly two-thirds of all chameleon species. Three of those species— Belalanda chameleon Furcifer belalandaensis, bizarre-nosed chameleon Calumma hafahafa, and Namoroka leaf chameleon Brookesia bonsi—are at critical risk, losing their habitat to slash-and-burn agricultural practices, logging for construction or charcoal, and cattle grazing.

Loss of habitat affects other chameleon species as well, as does collection for the pet trade. Sadly, many chameleon species do not do well in captivity.