“Go about life the way a chameleon walks: face what is in front and look back at what lies behind” – Malagasy proverb, Madagascar

This book is really the first of its kind – an authoritative guide to one of the more interesting and bizarre groups in the class of reptiles. The authors call them the “Swiss Army knife of the reptile world.” The book really illustrates this, covering all 192 species of chameleon; their variations in size, shape, color, and markings; and the unique abilities that set them apart from other reptiles. Their habitats vary as well – from the green, lustrous rainforests of Madagascar to the scorched Namib Desert in southern Africa.

The book opens with an overview of the evolution and classification of the family Chamaeleonidae. The history is interesting, relating how the oldest fossil that most likely resembles a chameleon is “Chamaeleo caroliquarti, [which] dates from 26 million years ago and was found in Europe.” The section proceeds to break down the family into two subfamilies – the leaf chameleons and the true chameleons – and concludes with their distribution and habitats. The next section features phenotypic information – size, shape, color, and markings. While almost all chameleons have the typical laterally compressed body shape, their size differences are vast. Head ornamentation is atypical across the family group, with a good number of the species featuring crests, horns, and other bony, helmet-like head structures. The eyes are another unique feature of the chameleons – they can be rotated independently of each other such that the lizard can be looking both in front and behind at the same time. The tongue is not sticky, but instead grabs prey by suction. The ability to change their color is not primarily a defense mechanism as was previously thought. This strategy appears to be secondary; it is now believed to be “primarily related to communication, whether expressions of dominance and submission, mood and emotion or courtship.”

The middle of the book details the types of enemies that chameleons typically encounter, as well as the defense strategies they have in place to counter these predators. Avoiding detection is key – their only other recourse is hissing or feigning death. In some examples of the leaf chameleons, “when touched or picked up, they release tiny volumes of air and vibrate, (which) people have likened to the feeling of a slight, electric shock.” The book continues with types of prey and feeding techniques, and courtship and reproductive behaviors.

The most interesting section, by far, is that relating chameleons and humans. The section on mythology and superstition brings to light many of the fables and beliefs of the tribes that share habitats with these curious lizards. This is followed by a section on conservation issues and a guide on how and where to look for these elusive reptiles, broken up by region: Madagascar, East and South Africa, and, in rare cases, the Mediterranean region, India, and Sri Lanka. This section concludes with a small overview on chameleons as pets.

The book concludes with a concise and thorough outline of the 10 genera of chameleons. Each genus description includes their distinguishing features, distribution, and natural history. There are three genera of the leaf or pygmy chameleons of subfamily Brookesiinae and seven of the true chameleons, belonging to the subfamily Chamaeleoninae.

In reading the book, I really get a sense that this can be geared toward any age group. My son is in second grade and immediately took the book off to a chair and spent a good amount of time perusing the pages. The photography is stunning – showing clearly the various species types as well as the vastness of their colorations – from drab, dead-leaf-litter colors to vivid kaleidoscopes. I can see this being used in a middle school science classroom, and it would be a nice addition to a high school reference library. The material is presented in a way most anyone can understand, and yet it addresses higher-level learning of phylogeny, behavior, and reproduction and presents a thorough synopsis of this family of reptiles without being overbearing.

ELIZABETH COWLES teaches sophmore-level biology, biochemistry, and entomology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She has taught at the undergraduate and graduate college levels for over 20 years. Her interests include insect toxicology, protein characterization, and astrobiology. Cowles holds degrees in biology and biochemistry from Cornell University and Michigan State University. Her address is Department of Biology, ECSU, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, CT 06226; e-mail: cowlese@easternct.edu.