Peiresc and the Chamaeleon
A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book III, chapter 21

From Petrus Gassendus N. Claudii Peiresci Vita (1641), englished by W. Rand (1657) as The Mirrour of true Nobility and Gentility. Being the Life of the Renowned Nicolaus Claudius Fabricius Lord of Pereisk, Senator of the Parliament at Aix, Book V, pp. 150-153:

In the middle of February [1637], the last of eight Chamæleons, which he had nourished and cherished ever since summer, died. For, whereas in the foregoing years he had obtained only one, or two, out of Africa, which were starved and killed, at the first approach of cold weather; therefore he would needs procure at last a good number of them, that by all possible care he might experiment, whether any of them would out-live the Winter. For, because he found that the Females were full of Eggs: therefore he was desirous to know their forming and manner of hatching, supposing that the spring would be the time of their breeding. Wherefore he covered the Hutch, in which these last were, with cloths, and placed it in a warm stove, and sometimes brought them into the Sun: but, whether they had bin hurt by the first cold, though but small; or whether the place in which they were afterwards kept, was too close and hot; or for that since the moneth of November, they did eat no meat at all; none of them could be preserved alive until the Spring. He caused them to be painted divers waies,1 but especially hanging by their Feet and the ends of their Tailes, which is their most usual posture, in which they sleep, and hunt for worms and flies.

For he found the common report, that they live only by the Air, to be a Fable; and tried them with many things, but found that they were pleased with no meat so much, as with those small Worms which breed in Meal-tubs, and Kneading-troughs. Now they are wont to use their Tongues, as the Elephant does his Trunk, which being near a foot long, they throw out of their Mouths like a dart; and that so swiftly, that you can scarce discern them with your eye. Which action they perform by help of a little bone, which where it is forked, is implanted on either side in the extremities of their throat or jawes; the rest of the said bone, being round and running the length of their mouths, it serves to contract or draw in and art out their tongue; which is hollow like a Gut, save that on the top thereof, there is a little bit of flesh, which is somewhat clammy the better to fasten upon the prey. Also he found that report to be false, which saies, that Chamæleons assume the colour of such things as are near unto them: for they are either green or ash-coloured, only they shew somewhat black, on that side which is next the Sun, or the Fire; otherwise they undergo no kind of change.2

One thing was rare and wonderful, viz. That the Chamæleon moves not his eyes both together; but while he looks with one eye this way or that way, the other stands still, or is turned the contrary way. Now they can turn the every way, by means of for little pulley-muscles; having no distinct Iris, only a little Eye-ball, upon which the Cornea tunica (being as the rest of the Body radiated, party-coloured, and dappled) is terminated on all sides. Moreover, the Chamæleons have teeth neatly ranked; certainly not to grind the air, but to chew the meat which they catch with their Tongues. They have only one Gut, not coiled or rowled round, but lying in length, only crooked this way and that way. The Excrement within the same, was very liquid, save in that part which was near the Dung-gate. Their Liver was divided into two Lobes or Laps, from the bunchy part thereof, pouring blood into their Heart which had Ears; but no Trunck ascending and descending: for not only the porta so called, went directly to the Gut; but the other Veins go also directly to the other parts. The Lungs being blown, appeared to be a most thin membrane, as big in compasse as the whole Beast it self. In the lower Belly, was no Peritonæum, only a Membrane dividing the right side from the left. No Spleen, no Bladder, no Kidnies; only we observed certain Caruncles, or small bits of flesh, which were haply the Genitals. In one of the Females, there were above an hundred Eggs, within a membrane or skinny bag, some of which were as big as the stones of an Olive, in which we found a yolk, but no White: whereas the small ones seemed to contain a kind of milkie substance.


1 [I.e., their portraits. Peiresc was very fond of having illustrations of his various animals, coins, and such like, including three portraits he had made of an elephant, one from the bottom as the elephant lay down, illustrating the joints of the legs.]

2 [It is perhaps needless to point out that all true chameleons can change body color, although the extent of such abilities and the stimulus necessary vary from species to species. It seems odd that Peiresc never noted the phenomenon in his otherwise comprehensive observations.]

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