An animal of the genus Chamœleon, the only genus of the tribe Dendrosaura (also Chamœleonida, Rhiptoglossa, Vermilinguia), of the Chamœleontidœ or Chamœleonidœ family, of which it is the type. Some sixty species of the genus are known to exist, the most common of which, Chamœleon vulgaris, is frequently found in Egypt and the Holy Land. The word "chameleon" is taken from the Greek χαμαιλέων (literally "ground-lion"), presumably a Greek adaptation of a foreign word. Bochart ("Hierozoicon," iv. ch. vi.) derives it from a supposed Punic word, ("little camel"). This conjecture he bases on the name "jamal al-Yahud" ("camel of the Jews"), which the Arabs give to the chameleon on account of the hump on its back.
In the A. V. "chameleon" is the rendering of the Hebrew (koaḥ), which occurs only once (in Lev. xi. 30), in a list of five unclean animals, where it occupies the second place. This rendering, appatently, has the support of the Septuagint and the Vulgate, which may, however, be due to the fact that the animals are not arranged in the same order in the LXX. as in the Hebrew. The same can be said of the rendering "ḥulda" of the Peshiṭta. The koaḥ is presumably a species of monitor, as the ḥulda is of the Mole. It is now commonly thought that the chameleon is to be identified with the fifth animal on the list, (tinshemet), in the R. V. This identification is based principally on the etymology of the word ("the breather," "inhaler"),from the root ("to blow," "to breathe"). The chameleon is remarkable for its habit of inflating itself, which, combined with its power of fasting, led the ancients to believe that it lived on air (see Bochart, l.c., quoting Ḳimḥi). In reality it lives on insects, which it captures by darting at them its long and viscid tongue. The little animal, six or seven inches long, or, with the tail, eleven to twelve inches, lives almost exclusively upon trees, where it finds itself quite at home, thanks to its prehensile tail and feet.
Another peculiarity of the chameleon is its ability to change its color, supposedly in accordance with that of the objects with which it comes in contact. Whatever be the occasion of the phenomenon, its possibility is due to the presence in the skin of contractile cells, both clear and pigment-bearing, placed at various depths, and so arranged that, under the control of the nervous system, the one or the other only, or both kinds in various proportions, will come to the surface.
The tinshemet of Lev. xi. 30 must not be confounded with a bird of the same name mentioned in Lev. xi. 18.
- A. B. Tristram, The Natural History of the Bible;
- J. G. Wood, Bible Animals;
- S. Bochart, Hierozoicon;
- Kamal al-Din al-Damiri, Ḥayyat al-Haiwan, see under ḥirba.