The secret language of chameleons

2013-04-28 10:00

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Could a colour-changing lizard hold the secret to making potty training more entertaining for parents and toddlers?

Possibly, says Australian chameleon expert Dr Devi Stuart-Fox, who spent four years in South Africa trying to understand the mysteries of chameleons.

But more importantly, she discovered that chameleons have a secret language – colour.

The University of Melbourne biologist researched the chameleon simply because she wanted to.

“I very strongly believe in the importance of curiosity-driven research because most of the really interesting discoveries in science result from attempts to answer questions,” she said.

“The more I study nature, the more I realise that it really is the stuff of science fiction.”

Her chameleon research shows that the animals change colour not for camouflage, but rather to signal to other chameleons in a “colour language”.

This shaped many of the ideas and approaches to her research, and also changed the way biologists saw the small creatures.

Stuart-Fox grew up in the Australian bush, and her love of the outdoors and nature’s mysteries drew her initially to colour-changing lizards such as chameleons.

“I became interested in their colour change on a cellular level,” she said. “I’m really attracted by colourful things.”

Ten years ago, she received a Unesco-L’Oréal international fellowship and spent four years in South Africa living in tents with her scientist husband chasing chameleons to study.

This year, she received the fellowship again to continue her work into the colour mysteries of lizards, particularly the Australian bearded dragon.

It is this research – into how bearded dragons change colour according to temperature – that could help scientists develop materials that respond to light and temperature – colour-changing bandages, or ecofriendly house paint, which changes colour during the day to save on heating and cooling costs.

A potty that changes colour when your toddler pees on a target would be useful for mothers.

Stuart-Fox studied colour changes in 21 groups of southern African dwarf chameleons.

She discovered that their colour changes were very likely a secret language.

She closely followed how they reacted to others of their species, and what they did when they noticed predators such as birds and snakes.

They found that chameleons saved their best colour displays when competing for a female’s attention.

They would then try to stand out as much as possible, rather then follow their normal habit of blending in with background vegetation.

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