University City

Uninvited guest brightens up winter

Our uninvited guest shows no signs of leaving.

He arrived during the holidays and now hangs out in our kitchen, saying nothing, staring absently into space and disappearing whenever the dishwasher runs.

That may sound like the beginning of a whiny letter to “Ask Amy,” but it isn’t. Though we don’t know where he came from, we are very glad he’s here.

He is a little Carolina anole, the sometimes green, sometimes brown lizards people call “chameleons.”

We have no idea how he got inside our house. Last week, I noticed something odd in a flowerpot behind the kitchen sink. A stem of philodendron got up and walked around.

I paused to check my sanity, then took a closer look. It was the anole. He gave me one of his vacant looks and then opened his mouth wide, like a 6-inch crocodile that dared me get closer.

The journey home

It’s been so cold that water lines keep busting at the farm, and I’ve had to bring crops home for washing. So maybe he hitched a ride on the spinach.

Or maybe he was lurking on our houseplants on the porch, and we carried him in before freezing weather. With his camouflage, he may have been here for weeks.

Nobody minds. The anole is no trouble, and he may even catch a few household bugs.

He is fun to watch as he goes about his lizardly life, oblivious to human distractions.

Anoles are a very successful family of lizards native to the Western Hemisphere. The Carolina species lives throughout the Southeast and has plenty of fans, from fascinated little kids to serious scientists.

One website,, is completely dedicated to anoles. Doctors post learned papers there, and “citizen scientists” are welcome to share observations.

Anoles are popularly called “chameleons,” but are unrelated to true chameleons, which are Old World lizards with amazing color changing abilities, sticky tongues and astonishing eyes.

Not flashy, but extraordinary

Anoles may not be as flashy, but they have their own extraordinary powers. Carolina anoles appear to be masters of adapting to a changing environment and are able to survive in natural woodlands or hang out beside suburban swimming pools with equal success.

Female anoles lay a single egg every week or two, then go looking to find a partner, over and over, turning anole summer into a constant mating game.

Males mark out big territories, each of which overlaps with roughly three female territories.

To proclaim borders and signal intentions, amorous or otherwise, both sexes bob their heads vigorously, and males unfurl a bright red flag of skin, or dewlap, from their chins. Through it all, anoles change color from brown to green and back again.

The mechanism is better understood than the behavior. According to Cornell University’s Ask A Scientist website, color cells with long branches permeate an anole’s skin.

These cells contain melanin, the pigment responsible for human skin colors.

An anole’s underlying skin cells are green. When the melanin is in the bottom of the pigment cells, you can see the green, but when it spreads throughout the branches, it blocks the green, and the lizard appears brown.

The “why” is still debated. It evidently has nothing to do with matching a background to hide from predators.

Signals in color

The strongest evidence suggests that color is used to signal other anoles, and that changes to brown generally occur under conditions of environmental or behavioral stress. After male-male conflict, one scientist observed, winners were usually green, and losers brown.

During winter, anoles alone or together (outside mating season, anoles do fine in groups) try to hide under fallen logs, in cracks in bark or inside rotten stumps, and they become semidormant. Unfortunately, when weather gets severe, as it has been lately, anoles may freeze to death.

Once the weather warms up, though, our anole will be going back outside. Until then, he can live in the kitchen window.

We will be sorry to see him go. We have enjoyed having this entertaining fellow Carolinian in residence.

I give the last word to Stephen Lockwood, a New England naturalist who corresponded with Darwin about singing animals, and who wrote about anoles during an 1876 visit to Florida:

“At the dining table of (our) hotel in Florida, a lady appeared with her four pet anoles. They were fastened to her head-gear by silken threads and ran over her neck and head, or nestled in the tresses of her hair, as they saw fit.

“In this particular we think the lady did violence to the rights of others. But duly regarding the proprieties of time and place, the lady did well in her delight with her ‘little chameleons.’

“As a pet, the anole is everything that is commendable: clean, inoffensive, pretty and wonderfully entertaining, provoking harmless mirth and stirring up in the thinker the profoundest depths of philosophy.”