Anand Pendharkar Column: Colour coordinated

It's obvious that all the social butterflies among humans must be practising their best dance moves for the New Year's party. To match those killer moves, they must have shopped for a show-stopper ensemble. Of course, there will be preening and priming, gyming and beauty parlour visits. These activities will finally culminate in putting out your best courtship display during the party, complicated by the jungle-like confusion and noise of the pub. But, things in nature work differently.

Dressing up or draping up in a suitable body colour, is a matter of years of evolution followed by the impacts of season and hormones. The varied body colourations, elaborate patterns and seasonal variations seen among animals are integral to their survival and breeding success. Automatically, they have become an important field of study for ecologists and evolutionary biologists. Mind you, these adaptive colourations are in action, doing their tasks of hiding, shocking, mimicking and confusing right here under your noses, in Urban Mumbai.

A chameleon’s bundled toes enables it to hold branches
A chameleon's bundled toes enables it to hold branches

You would be no less than a wildlife detective like Sherlock Holmes, if you go around observing the colours and patterns of every common bird, insect, reptile, amphibian or mammal. There are secret messages and evolutionary stories hidden among the owl-like false eyes of butterflies and moths or the spots and stripes of mammals. There are many contenders for the label of master of dressing up and colour co-ordination in the marine environment, such as varieties of octopus, sepia, fish and invertebrates. However, if you ask me, who is the best dressed creature in the terrestrial domain is, then my definite vote would be for the Chameleon.

Chameleons are famous world over for their innumerable peculiarities. The 202 species of chameleons vary in size from tiny 15-mm adults to some males which grow up to 69 cm. All chameleons exhibit zygodactyly, wherein their five toes are clumped into two opposable bundles of two and three toes, giving them the capacity to hold branches and climb. Chameleons have highly extendable tongues, which are attached in the front of the mouth and can be thrown out to catch prey much further than entire body length. The ornamentations on their heads and bodies are elaborate, such as nasal protrusions, horn-like projections, large crests and ear-like growths and even distinct dimorphic colourations between some males and females. To add to this weirdness, the swaying gait of the chameleons and conical eyes that can look in independent directions put them in a league of their own.

These may seem like exaggerations to the uninitiated, but even one opportunity to observe a chameleon and you will be talking about them for days. Be careful if you ever handle them, as they have very sharp claws and can snap and bite too.

They also use various hissing sounds and arch or flatten their bodies to enhance their threat. Another peculiarity that cannot be missed is the prehensile tail, which is curled around a branch as an additional limb or held parallel to the ground or upright like an antenna depending on where they are located.

If this hasn't already blown your mind, then watch chameleons change their body colours. A relaxed chameleon generally matches its body colour and patterns with its surroundings and is hence overall green-brown. But on being threatened or startled, they can change into shocking red, yellow, black, purple, blue or even white. Earlier, it was believed that these colour modifications were due to pigment readjustments in their skin. But recent studies have proven that they reflect selected wavelengths of light by adjusting their body temperature and nanocrystals present in their double-layered skin.

Nature has enough and more ideas to inspire fashion designers, architects, painters, musicians, technocrats and even town planners. What we need to do is to invest more time and money in letting our kids get amazed by these master creations, which have been tried and tested over millions of years of evolution.

Write in to Anand Pendharkar at sproutsonline@gmail.com

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