15 Amazing Color-Changing Animals That Aren’t Chameleons

While many chameleon species are spectacular mimics, able to change their coloration quickly to suit their needs, they aren’t nearly the only animals capable of doing this—and, arguably, aren’t even the most impressive.


There are a few different ways an animal can change coloration. Mammals sometimes shed fur on a seasonal basis; birds do the same with feathers; reptiles will discard a layer of dead skin and replace it with something else. But there are also animals that rely on chromatophores, a type of cell that reflects light and can be controlled to reflect different wavelengths—in other words, to change color.

Peacock Flounder

Peacock Flounder

Peacock Flounder

When you think of flounder, you probably don’t get too excited; it’s just a strange-looking flat fish, right? CC BY 2.5Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia

The peacock flounder, sometimes known as the flowery flounder, bucks boring tradition. It lives in the tropical Indo-Pacific area, typically in shallow waters. Because its habitat is highly variable—rocks, coral, sand—it developed the ability to change colors in only eight seconds. Each of those four photos? Those are the same individual fish.

Mimic Octopus

Mimic Octopus

Mimic Octopus

Discovered only recently, in 1998 near Indonesia, the mimic octopus is one of the most adept imitators in the animal kingdom. CC BY-SA 2.0Rickard Zerpe/Wikimedia

It’s capable of changing its coloration from tan to black and white to various striped and blotched patterns, but it doesn’t stop there: it uses its color-changing ability in concert with impersonations of other animals. Check out this video to see it imitate a flat fish, lionfish, sea snake, and, well, something we’re not quite sure of.

Green Anole

Green Anole

Green Anole

One of the most common lizards in the American southeast, the green anole is capable of turning both green and brown; it can’t change colors in between, but it can show both green and brown coloration. CC BY-SA 4.0Huhnra/Wikipedia

What’s most fascinating about the green anole is that despite being an incredibly common animal, scientists aren’t actually sure why or when they change colors. Sometimes they do it to blend in, as camouflage; sometimes they pick the opposite color, turning green while standing on a brown log. It’s theorized that there may be a communication aspect.

Golden Tortoise Beetle

Golden Tortoise Beetle

Golden Tortoise Beetle

The golden tortoise beetle, which lives in Central America, is much prettier than you would expect a beetle to be: sort of like a perfect golden-to-transparent ladybug. CC BY 2.0Andrew C/Wikimedia

But it’s also capable of swapping out its beautiful jeweled appearance for a spotted dark reddish-brownish color, and it seems to do this when it’s upset—like, when a scientist touches it. Researchers aren’t quite sure how it does this, or what it means.

Grey Tree Frog

Grey Tree Frog

Grey Tree Frog

Native to the eastern United States and even up into southern Canada, the grey tree frog has kind of a misleading name, because it certainly isn’t always grey.Dustykid/Wikimedia

When seated on rocks or dead plant matter, it likes to turn a shade of grey ranging from nearly black to nearly white; when up in the trees, it can turn a vivid green. Unfortunately you’re not that likely to see one; except for breeding, it likes to stay high up in trees.

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan

One of the best named birds, the rock ptarmigan doesn’t have the chromatophore advantage that fish and cephalopods do. CC BY-SA 4.0Chme82/Wikimedia

But that doesn’t stop it from changing color twice per year. The rock ptarmigan lives through the world’s arctic, where for much of the year it’s a pure white to match its snowy surroundings. During the brief northern summers, though, it sheds and slaps on a cute mottled grey coat, better to blend in with bare rock.

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Flamboyant is right for this cuttlefish. CC BY 2.0Silke Baron/Wikipedia

Unlike other animals, the flamboyant cuttlefish isn’t trying to blend in; it’s toxic to any opportunistic predators, so it colors itself a truly outrageous garnet and gold color. But it has the color-changing ability of its relatives, like other cuttlefish, squid, and octopuses, and uses it to convey even crazier demonstrations: rolling patterns, almost like a projector is pointed at it.

Peron’s Tree Frog

Peron's Tree Frog

Peron's Tree Frog

A quick-changer for a frog, the Peron’s tree frog can change from greyish to brownish to yellow to green-spotted, all in less than an hour. CC BY 2.0Matt/Wikimedia

Native to eastern Australia, it’s also sometimes given nicknames alluding to its slightly deranged call: a fast-paced, high-pitched cackle. You can hear its call in this video; it sounds more like a bird call than a frog.

Pygmy Seahorse

Pygmy Seahorse

Pygmy Seahorse

Found amongst the colorful corals off the coast of southeast Asia, the various species of pygmy seahorse are all incredibly tiny, often less than an inch in height. CC BY-SA 3.0Jlarouche/Wikipedia

They typically latch onto one coral and live there for their entire lives, blending in with the same bright colors and lumpy texture of the coral. That, you might think, doesn’t sound like color changing. But it turns out that they’re born a pale grey color, and quickly develop their color and texture based on which coral they land on. Siblings may end up looking entirely different.

Hogfish

Hogfish

Hogfish

The hogfish is so named for the method by which it hunts: using its long snout to root around in the coral reef sands for small mollusks to chomp down on. CC BY-SA 2.0Sander van der Wel/Wikimedia

It also changes colors very quickly, generally to match its surroundings for camouflage, from white to red to brown to various mottled colors. Interestingly, a recent study found that hogfish actually detect colors with their skin. They can’t see with their skin, exactly, but they can detect some wavelengths and patterns.

Scrawled Filefish

Scrawled Filefish

Scrawled Filefish

The scrawled filefish ends up looking pretty amazing no matter what it does: with chunky black dots and irregular blue squiggles, it looks straight out of the Saved by the Bell aesthetic. CC BY SA-3.0Philippe Bourjon /Wikipedia

But while keeping its essential style, it can very rapidly change colors to camouflage itself, from pale grey to dark brown, plus various stripes and splotches.

Caribbean Reef Squid

Caribbean Reef Squid

Caribbean Reef Squid

A common sight for snorkelers in the Caribbean, even as far north as the Atlantic coast of south Florida, the Caribbean reef squid likes to stay close to shore. CC BY-SA 3.0Nhobgood/Wikipedia

Like cuttlefish and octopuses, it’s capable of very rapid changes in color, and like many of those species, it doesn’t really use those for camouflage. Instead, various flashing patterns and colors seem to be a communication method.

Australian Giant Cuttlefish

Australian Giant Cuttlefish

Australian Giant Cuttlefish

The largest of all cuttlefish species, at a foot and a half long, the Australian giant cuttlefish puts on annual elaborate shows to attract a mate. CC BY-SA 2.0Richard Ling/Wikimedia

Usually it uses its amazing color changing abilities for camouflage, but when attracting a mate, it shows off with bold zebra-stripes, neon blue and green accents, and a series of undulating waves of color that look like shadows passing over it—except, of course, there are no shadows.

Stoat

Stoat smelling yellow flowers

Stoat

One of the cutest of all weasel species, the stoat, sometimes called the ermine, is native to the northern chunks of North America and Eurasia. CC BY-SA 4.0Daniele Bariviera/Wikimedia

In the summer, it looks like the photo above, with a handsome reddish-tan jacket over a perfect white belly. But that look doesn’t help it hunt in the snowy wintertime, so each winter, it sheds that jacket and becomes a pure-white hunting machine. This hasn’t always been good for the stoat; it is sometimes hunted or farmed during the winter to make fur coats out of its winter look.

Crab Spider

Crab Spider

Crab Spider

Color changing isn’t quite as common in insects as it is in, say, cephalopods, but some still have mastered the form. CC BY-SA 3.0Luc Viatour/Wikipedia

The crab spider, which lives throughout the arctic and subarctic world, is an active hunter, scampering from flower to flower to find prey. Unfortunately, not all flowers are the same color; where this guy, the goldenrod crab spider, lives, it likes to hang out on white and yellow flowers. Unlike the other animals on this list, the crab spider actually secretes a yellow pigment onto its outside, effectively painting itself. Or it can hide that yellow pigment, becoming more white.










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