Genitive: Chamaeleontis

Abbreviation: Cha

Size ranking: 79th

Origin: The 12 southern constellations of Keyser and de Houtman

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, in close pursuit of Musca, the fly. On a globe of 1600, the Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612) 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 adjacent 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.

Hondius and Bayer oriented the chameleon with its feet towards the south celestial pole, but the Frenchman Nicolas Louis de Lacaille turned it round so that it had its back to the pole on his southern planisphere of 1756, and that is how it has been depicted ever since.

Chamaeleon has no legends associated with it, and it contains no bright stars.

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved

Chamaeleon as depicted on Chart XX of the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801).
Unlike in some other representations it is ignoring the fly, Musca, which lies above its head, off the top of this illustration.