The celestial chameleon, named after the lizard that can change its skin colour to match its mood, is one of the constellations representing exotic animals introduced by the Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman when they charted the southern skies in 1595–97. These new southern constellations were first shown on a globe by their fellow Dutchman Petrus Plancius in 1598 and were rapidly adopted by other map makers such as Johann Bayer, for no other observations of the far southern skies were then available. Chameleons are particularly common in Madagascar, where the Dutch fleet stopped to rest and resupply in 1595 on its way to the East Indies, so they probably saw plenty of them there.

Chamaeleon lies near the south celestial pole, next to Musca, the fly. On a globe of 1600, the Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius depicted the chameleon sticking out its tongue to catch the fly. Three years later, Johann Bayer in his Uranometria showed the chameleon in the same pose yet evidently failed to appreciate what the insect, then still unnamed, was supposed to be – he depicted it not as a fly but a bee and named it Apis, as did Bode nearly 200 years later. Chamaeleon has no legends associated with it, and it contains no bright stars.

Chamaeleon as depicted in the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801). Unlike in some representations it is ignoring the fly, Musca, which lies above its head, off the top of this illustration. Bode named and depicted Musca not as a fly but as Apis, the bee, as had Bayer before him.

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved