The skin of the chameleon rapidly changes color via active adjustment of nanocrystal structures beneath pigment cells

The variety of colors that chameleons can display is produced through a combination of pigments and structural colors. Chameleon skin contains different types of chromatophore (color-bearing) cells organized in layers within the skin. The upper layer of skin contains cells with yellow and red pigments, while lower layers contain cells with dark melanin pigment, which appears black or brown. Just below the layer of yellow and red chromatophores is a layer of cells called iridophores (iridescent chromatophores) that produce structural color. Rather than containing pigment, iridophores contain an organized array of transparent, nano-sized crystals that reflect specific wavelengths of light. The reflected light is perceived as color.

The latest research on color-changing in chameleons reveals that they primarily change color by actively adjusting the spacing between these nanocrystals, which causes different wavelengths of light to be reflected. The crystal structures and pigments in chameleon skin both contribute to the overall color of the skin. For example, when blue light reflects off the crystal layer and travels through the yellow pigment above, the result humans see is the color green.

Researchers are still investigating the function of changing skin color in chameleons, but more recent research suggests that chameleons change color to communicate with one another during social interactions.

Check out this video by KQED Deep Look to learn more about how chameleons change color, and about how researchers are building synthetic chameleon skin that mimics these lizards’ color-changing mechanism.

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Video content © 2015 KQED INC. All Rights Reserved.

Image: Teyssier et al. 2015, doi:10.1038/ncomms7368 / 
Image: Teyssier et al. 2015, doi:10.1038/ncomms7368 / 
Image: kuhnmi / Flickr

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Last Updated March 1, 2017