Is January a bleak, colorless time of the year where you live? To brighten your gray winter days, we’ve asked Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings to poke holes in four of your most embarrassing misconceptions about color. After all, there are plenty of colorful anniversaries to observe this month. The first color TV broadcast was the Rose Bowl of January 1953, and in January 1993, Crayola added sixteen new colors to its crayon boxes, including “Tickle Me Pink” and “Macaroni and Cheese.” The political novel Primary Colors was a January release; so was Radiohead’s album In Rainbows. Could there be a better time of year for a kaleidoscope of facts that—however colorful—are completely wrong?
Color Myth #4: Chameleons’ Color-Changing Abilities Are for Camouflage.
Everyone knows that chameleons evolved their color-changing to blend in with their surroundings. In fact, it’s probably the only thing that people know about chameleons. We’ve even borrowed the word “chameleonic” to refer to people who change their ideas or character depending on where they are, like the title character in Woody Allen’s movie Zelig.
But that’s not what chameleons do, for the most part. Yes, they do have layers of pigmented cells in their skin, and can shift the pigment from the outer part of each cell to the nucleus and back in less than a thousandth of a second, depending on the look they’re going for. But this rarely has anything to do with camouflage. In most species, the color changing serves two purposes: temperature regulation (a darker color to absorb more sunlight, a lighter one to cool down) and social signaling (mating and dominance rituals, mostly). Chameleons don’t want to blend in—quite the opposite! They want to impress chicks.
An Australian researcher, Dr. Devi Stuart-Fox, was able to find one species, the endangered Smith’s Dwarf Chameleon, that would grow lighter or darker in the presence of predators. But Stuart-Fox found that these abilities don’t vary with habitat, as you’d expect if the color change evolved as a defense mechanism. He concluded that chameleons evolved their color trick to stand out, but a few species have found the opposite trick to be a beneficial side effect. I guess we should actually use the word “chameleonic” to refer to people who always look noticeably out of place, like Lady Gaga, or me at parties.
Quick Quiz: “Karma Chameleon” was one of two #1 singles for Boy George’s 1980s band Culture Club in its native Britain. What was their other UK #1?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead, out now. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user wwarby. Used under a Creative Commons License.