Avoidance of a moving threat in the common chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon): rapid tracking by body motion and eye use


A chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) on a perch responds to a nearby threat by moving to the side of the perch opposite the threat, while bilaterally compressing its abdomen, thus minimizing its exposure to the threat. If the threat moves, the chameleon pivots around the perch to maintain its hidden position. How precise is the body rotation and what are the patterns of eye movement during avoidance? Just-hatched chameleons, placed on a vertical perch, on the side roughly opposite to a visual threat, adjusted their position to precisely opposite the threat. If the threat were moved on a horizontal arc at angular velocities of up to 85°/s, the chameleons co-rotated smoothly so that (1) the angle of the sagittal plane of the head relative to the threat and (2) the direction of monocular gaze, were positively and significantly correlated with threat angular position. Eye movements were role-dependent: the eye toward which the threat moved maintained a stable gaze on it, while the contralateral eye scanned the surroundings. This is the first description, to our knowledge, of such a response in a non-flying terrestrial vertebrate, and it is discussed in terms of possible underlying control systems.

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The research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (ISF). We thank Ido Izhaki for statistical advice and Nina Dinov and Nir Keshales for support throughout the research. The thorough comments of the two anonymous referees were of extreme help.

Author information

Correspondence to Gadi Katzir.

Additional information

T. Lev-Ari and A. Lustig contributed equally to this research.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Monocular gaze under three different threat angular velocities. An overhead view of four individuals performing an avoidance response under low (counterclockwise [CCW] and clockwise [CW]), medium (CCW) and high (CW) threat angular velocities. (WMV 13861 kb)

Supplementary Video 1

Avoidance response of a mature chameleon on a vertical pole to a moving hand (a threat). The chameleon’s abdomen is compressed bilaterally, while the ventrum is directed at the threat. (MPG 4083 kb)

Supplementary Video 2

An overhead view of a just-hatched chameleon on a vertical pole performing an avoidance response. The moving black line provides the direction of the moving threat over the entire angular range. (MPG 5083 kb)

Supplementary Video 3

Monocular gaze under three different threat angular velocities. An overhead view of four individuals performing an avoidance response under low (counterclockwise [CCW] and clockwise [CW]), medium (CCW) and high (CW) threat angular velocities. (WMV 13861 kb)

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Lev-Ari, T., Lustig, A., Ketter-Katz, H. et al. Avoidance of a moving threat in the common chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon): rapid tracking by body motion and eye use. J Comp Physiol A 202, 567–576 (2016).

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  • Visually guided tracking
  • Threat avoidance
  • Eye movement
  • Chameleon
  • Role-dependent eye movement