A Flashy Affair

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Science  07 Mar 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5868, pp. 1309
DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5868.1309a

Humans see chameleons as masters of camouflage. The lizards themselves seem to see more in it than predator avoidance. This family of lizards has evolved a range of talents, some merely changing skin tone, others changing color, too. All thanks to rapidly reacting neurally controlled chromatophores in their skin. Stuart-Fox and Moussalli used reflectance spectroradiometry, tuned to the spectral sensitivities of the retinas of chameleons and of potential bird predators, to measure the conspicuousness of a variety of lineages of African dwarf chameleons in their preferred habitats. If the habitat is dense and complex, bird predators tend to be excluded, and there is less need for disguise. Here, the chameleons indulge in flashy aggressive behavior, changing color spectacularly in social displays; at least from a chameleon's-eye view. In more open, hotter habitats it pays to live a drab and quiet life, avoiding the notice of predators, staying cool sand-colored and merely adjusting brightness during social exchanges. So, deep in the bush, what we perceive as subtly changing camouflage, chameleons perceive as flamboyant social signaling. — CA

PLoS Biol. 6, e25, 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060025 (2008).

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