Does North Carolina have chameleons?

November 2004

The Aquarium gets this question often because of the little  look-alike  lizards so common along our coast.

Anoles are seldom found on the ground. They prefer forest edges, old buildings, boardwalks – anywhere there’s lots of shrubbery and sunlight. Because of their adhesive toe pads, they can even climb glass!

What is often mistaken for a chameleon in our area is actually the green Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis). This small lizard can be found inland to the coast and is common in most all humid, temperate and tropical regions of the southeastern United States and Caribbean. Although unrelated to chameleons, anoles can easily be taken for chameleons because of their ability to change color.

Both chameleons and anoles can  alter color. Humidity, temperature, excitement—nearly any fluctuation or stress factor can prompt a color change in anoles.  These changes have been the subject of numerous scientific studies. In fact, anoles are one of the most commonly studied reptiles in the world. Their primitive social structures are also of great interest.

Dominant males are extremely territorial, defending their range with elaborate displays and occasional physical attack, even though their territory is little more than a cubic yard. Bright green males, with their characteristic pink dewlap or throat pouch, respond to an invading male by performing a series of push-ups while alternately expanding and contracting the bright warning color of his dewlap. As stress hormones rise, the anole’s color  changes to dark brown. Higher stress levels result in the development of an eyespot just behind the true eye and a color change back to brilliant green. The head and neck crest may become raised. These displays rarely result in violence and most often are simple endurance tests. The less dominant male  usually gives up and moves off.

If a female enters a male’s territory, the male puts on his brightest shade of green struts close by, expanding his dewlap and nodding his head rapidly. This romantic display prompts the female to mate. Each male may have three or more females within their territories.

Females tend to be much smaller than males, rarely exceeding 5 inches. After mating, they lay at least one egg every other week from March through October. The eggs are shaped much like chicken eggs, but are soft and a little more than ¼ inch in length. The eggs are carefully placed among moist plant matter and hatch in five to seven weeks.

Anoles feed throughout the day on a variety of insects and spiders. Their toes are equipped with adhesive pads, enabling them to climb vines, trees or buildings in search of prey, or to escape predators such as rat snakes or common house cats. They are rarely active at night. Like other reptiles, they shed their skin to grow.

Carolina anoles are commonly sold as pets in local shops. Before taking an anole or any other animal home from a pet store, learn about their needs and habitat requirements. Properly regulating the temperature, humidity, space and nutritional requirements for reptiles is quite a commitment.