Could This New Chameleon Discovery Lead to Camouflage Technology?

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Would you want to be able to fly? Would you have laser vision? Would you be super strong? What about the power to camouflage with your surroundings? If you were a panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), you could do just that!

Well, maybe not exactly, but we’ll talk about that in a minute. First, we should dispel a common misconception about chameleons. Most people think that chameleons change color in order to blend into their surroundings, but that’s not quite true.

The reasons chameleons change are many and varied; most often it’s to display emotions, from bright yellows and reds to show excitement and anger to blues and greens when they’re calm; sometimes it’s to regulate temperatures, using brighter colors to reflect the sun’s light and cool down, and darker colors to draw more warmth in; other times, it’s to communicate, such as a male competing with other males or showing off for a certain lady lizard.

That being said, these tricky reptiles are still very hard to find. Their resting color state blends in immaculately with the plant life of their home turf: Madagascar.

Last week, scientists figured out how these chameleons change the color of their skin. For a long time, we believed that they did this by shifting pigments–called chromatophores—around inside their skin. However, this chameleon discovery has changed all that.

The way pigment works is by reflecting or absorbing certain wavelengths of the chromatic spectrum; that is, when we see a red apple, it is absorbing all the colors except red, and reflecting red instead. Because that light is being reflected, our eyes are able to view it. In normal skin, these pigments are chromatophores.

However, the iridophores in the chameleon’s skin don’t absorb light at all. They are actually made up of photonic crystals, and utilize something called structural color to force wavelengths to refract and bend in different ways. This light manipulation causes us to see different colors in their skin. One of the ways they were able to detect this information was by analyzing the nanoscale structure of the chameleon’s skin through a transmission electron microscope.

What they found was that the spacing of these crystals made a big difference. Skin samples of chameleons in an excited state (showing bright colors) had photonic crystals that were spaced much farther apart compared to skin samples of chameleons in a resting state.

So what does this mean for us? Well, maybe scientists will be able to create a fabric covered in these crystals. Then they can develop a cloak with camouflage technology so we can become invisible. We might not have super powers, but if we could get our hands on of those, we wouldn’t complain!

Let us know which super power you want to have in the comments below. Feel free to follow us on social media, don’t forget to subscribe to the Science Hub, and thanks for reading, mad scientists!