Crested chameleon (Trioceros cristatus)

Synonyms: Chamaeleo cristatus, Chamaeleon cristatus
GenusTrioceros (1)(2)
SizeFemale length: 28 cm (3)
Male length: 25 cm (3)

The crested chameleon is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

With a high, fanlike crest running along the top of its body, the crested chameleon is one of the most easily recognisable chameleon species. Although the female is the larger of the sexes, the male’s crest is significantly taller and more pronounced. The crested chameleon’s head extends, at the rear, into a bony prominence called a “casque”, formed from ridges that run along either side of the head. In the male, these ridges are outlined with vibrant blue scales, which brighten during territorial displays. Like other chameleon species, the crested chameleon has the remarkable ability to change the colour of its body. Females generally adopt greenish hues, while males most commonly appear grey, brown or tan, but both sexes can assume a range of colours, even becoming maroon (3). Unlike chameleon species which live high in the trees and have long, prehensile tails to aid climbing, the crested chameleon occupies the forest undergrowth and has a particularly short tail relative to its body length (5).

The crested chameleon is found in many of the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. Its range extends from Nigeria eastwards through Cameroon to the Central African Republic and southwards through Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. This species may also occur in Ghana and Togo (4).

Although the crested chameleon may be found at a range of altitudes from lowland to mountainous regions it, nevertheless, has quite specific habitat requirements. It is restricted to dense forest undergrowth, and is most commonly found in low-growing shrubs, and occasionally on the ground, where the conditions are extremely humid and shady (6).

Active during the day, the crested chameleon commences foraging in the early morning, becoming increasingly energetic as the temperature rises (6). It moves slowly and stealthily along branches, aided by its specially adapted feet, the toes of which are fused into two opposing pads, providing a pincer-like grip. Once prey has been sighted it is caught by means of the crested chameleon’s remarkable, extensile tongue. The contraction of special muscles within the tongue rapidly propels it towards the prey, which is snared by a combination of the tongue’s sticky mucous coating and a vacuum created by muscles in the tip (7). While the crested chameleon mainly feeds on insects such as locusts and grasshoppers, it has also been recorded catching a young frog. During the hottest part of the day, this species rests in the shade where it conceals itself from predators behind broad leaves. It recommences hunting from late afternoon until dusk, before spending the night resting amongst vegetation close to ground level (6).

The breeding season occurs from July to September in the period between the end of the wet season and the beginning of the dry season. Males establish territories where they mate with receptive females and which they defend from rival males (7). After mating, the female lays a clutch of between 11 and 14 eggs (6), but clutches of as many as 16 to 37 have been reported among captive bred specimens (3).

Although listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1), the crested chameleon is threatened by the high levels of deforestation occurring in many parts of its range. In southern Nigeria, intensive logging of the forest and burning of the bush for agricultural purposes has been shown to completely destroy local crested chameleon populations (6). In addition, this species is also collected for trade and to be used in traditional medicines (6) (8).

The crested chameleon is listed on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and any international trade in this species is therefore strictly controlled and regulated by annual maximum export quotas (4). In addition, the crested chameleon is found in a number of protected areas within its range, including Takamanda Forest Reserve in Cameroon (9) (10). Nevertheless, many of these areas are under threat from uncontrolled hunting and both legal and illegal logging. Stronger legislation and adequate funding must be provided if these areas are to continue to provide a refuge for the rich biodiversity they harbour (9) (10).

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Authenticated (23/02/2009) by Edward I. Pollak, Ph.D. Department of Psychology, West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2011)
  2. Tilbury, C.R. and Tolley, K.A. (2009) A re-appraisal of the systematics of the African genus Chamaeleo (Reptilia: Chamaeleonidae). Zootaxa, 2079: 57-68.
  3. (January, 2009)
  4. CITES (January, 2009)
  5. Le Berre, F., Bartlett, R.D. and Bartlett, P. (2000) The Chameleon Handbook. Barron's Educational Series, New York.
  6. Akani, G.C., Ogbalu, O.K. and Luiselli, L. (2001) Life-history and ecological distribution of chameleons (Reptilia, Chamaeleonidae) from the rain forests of Nigeria: conservation implications. Animal Biodiversity and Conservation, 24: 1-15.
  7. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptile and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Carpenter, A.I., Rowcliffe, J.M. and Watkinson, A.R. (2004) The dynamics of global trade in chameleons. Biological Conservation, 120: 291-301.
  9. Pauwels, O.S.G., Burger, M., Branch, W.R., Tobi, E., Yoga, J. and Mikolo, E. (2006) Reptiles of the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas, southwestern Gabon. Bulletin of the Biological Society of Washington, 12: 309-318.
  10. LeBreton, M., Chirio, L. and Foguekem, D. (2003) Chapter 6: Reptiles of Takamanda Forest Reserve, Cameroon. In: Comiskey, J.A., Sunderland, T.C.H. and Sunderland-Groves, J.L. (Eds.) Takamanda: the Biodiversity of an African Rainforest, SI/MAB Series #8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Available at: