A Negatively Powered Lens in the Chameleon

Nature. 1995 Feb 23;373(6516):692-4. doi: 10.1038/373692a0.


Chameleons are arboral lizards that spot their prey visually and catch it by highly precise shots with their long sticky tongue. They scan their environment by large-amplitude independent saccadic eye movements; once an insect is detected, the head axis is aligned towards the target ('head tracking', both eyes come forward to fixate the insect and, in a phase called 'initial protrusion', the sticky tongue is loaded with tension by a special hyoid apparatus and subsequently shot out of the mouth with great precision. Lenses placed in front of the eyes produce predictable errors in distance estimation, suggesting that chameleons rely on accommodation cues when measuring the distance to their prey, but focusing has never been measured directly. Using a new technique to measure accommodation, we now show that accommodation is precise enough to serve as the major distance cue. Because accurate focusing requires large retinal images, we have tested image magnification and find that it is higher than in any other vertebrate eye scaled to the same size. This is a result of a unique optical design: unlike other vertebrate eyes, the crystalline lens of the chameleon has negative refractive power. Although there is a trend among vertebrates to increase corneal power and to decrease lens power with higher visual acuity, only in the chameleon eye has this tendency led to a reversal of the sign of the power of the lens.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Accommodation, Ocular / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Distance Perception / physiology
  • Eye / anatomy & histology
  • Lens, Crystalline / anatomy & histology
  • Lens, Crystalline / physiology*
  • Lizards / anatomy & histology
  • Lizards / physiology*
  • Ocular Physiological Phenomena
  • Optics and Photonics