Light-up lizards: See chameleons glow gorgeously under UV

Scientists discover chameleons with a nifty skin and bone feature that lets them glow in stunning patterns under UV.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

Some chameleons could fit right into the luminescent world of "Avatar."  

The lizards may be known for changing their colors, but they've also been hiding a different sort of colorful surprise: the ability to glow under UV light. The results are visually stunning.

"We could hardly believe our eyes when we illuminated the chameleons in our collection with a UV lamp, and almost all species showed blue, previously invisible patterns on the head, some even over the whole body," David Prötzel, a PhD student at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, said in a statement. 

Prötzel and his team discovered the blue patterns coincided with the shape of bony protuberances under the chameleons' skin. A closer look revealed the lizards' skin to be extremely thin and transparent in those spots. A release from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München describes these areas as "windows that enable UV light to reach the bone, where it is absorbed and then emitted again as blue fluorescent light. "

Prötzel posted a video showing a panther chameleon sporting a lovely pattern of dots on its head. The footage also highlights a Brookesia chameleon with a fetching arrangement of luminous dots and stripes running down its body.

Fluorescence is more common in sea creatures than land critters, so the chameleons really stand out. 

"It has long been known that bones fluoresce under UV light, but that animals use this phenomenon to fluoresce themselves has surprised us and was previously unknown," said herpetologist Frank Glaw of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology.  

The researchers published their findings this week in the journal Scientific Reports. 

These far-out animals fascinate and amuse scientists

See all photos