Lizards exploit the changing optics of developing chromatophore cells to switch defensive colors during ontogeny

Gan Zhang, Venkata Jayasurya Yallapragada, Topaz Halperin, Avital Wagner, Michal Shemesh, Alexander Upcher, Iddo Pinkas, Harry L.O. McClelland, Dror Hawlena, Benjamin A. Palmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Many animals undergo changes in functional colors during development, requiring the replacement of integument or pigment cells. A classic example of defensive color switching is found in hatchling lizards, which use conspicuous tail colors to deflect predator attacks away from vital organs. These tail colors usually fade to concealing colors during ontogeny. Here, we show that the ontogenetic blue-to-brown tail color change in Acanthodactylus beershebensis lizards results from the changing optical properties of single types of developing chromatophore cells. The blue tail colors of hatchlings are produced by incoherent scattering from premature guanine crystals in underdeveloped iridophore cells. Cryptic tail colors emerge during chromatophore maturation upon reorganization of the guanine crystals into a multilayer reflector concomitantly with pigment deposition in the xanthophores. Ontogenetic changes in adaptive colors can thus arise not via the exchange of different optical systems, but by harnessing the timing of natural chromatophore development. The incoherent scattering blue color here differs from the multilayer interference mechanism used in other blue-tailed lizards, indicating that a similar trait can be generated in at least two ways. This supports a phylogenetic analysis showing that conspicuous tail colors are prevalent in lizards and that they evolved convergently. Our results provide an explanation for why certain lizards lose their defensive colors during ontogeny and yield a hypothesis for the evolution of transiently functional adaptive colors.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2215193120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number118
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2023


  • chromatophore
  • development
  • guanine
  • lizard
  • ontogenetic color

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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