Chameleons are distinguished by their zygodactylous feet; their very extensive, highly modified, rapidly extrudable tongues; their swaying gait; and crests or horns on their brow and snout. Most species, the larger ones in particular, also have a prehensile tail. Chameleons' eyes are independently mobile, but in aiming at a prey item, they focus forward in coordination, affording the animal stereoscopic vision.
Chameleons are adapted for climbing and visual hunting. They live in warm habitats that range from rain forest to desert conditions, with various species occurring in Africa, Madagascar, southern Europe, and across southern Asia as far as Sri Lanka. They also have been introduced to Hawaii, California, and Florida, and often are kept as household pets.
The English word chameleon (/kəˈmiːliən/) is a simplified spelling of Latin chamaeleōn, a borrowing of the Greek χαμαιλέων (khamailéōn), a compound of χαμαί (khamaí) "on the ground" and λέων (léōn) "lion".
The family Chamaeleonidae was divided into two subfamilies, Brookesiinae and Chamaeleoninae, by Klaver and Böhme in 1986. Under this classification, Brookesiinae included the genera Brookesia and Rhampholeon, as well as the genera later split off from them (Palleon and Rieppeleon), while Chamaeleoninae included the genera Bradypodion, Calumma, Chamaeleo, Furcifer and Trioceros, as well as the genera later split off from them (Archaius, Nadzikambia and Kinyongia). Since that time, however, the validity of this subfamily designation has been the subject of much debate, although most phylogenetic studies support the notion that the pygmy chameleons of the subfamily Brookesiinae are not a monophyletic group.
While some authorities have previously preferred to use this subfamilial classification on the basis of the absence of evidence principle, these authorities later abandoned this subfamilial division, no longer recognizing any subfamilies with the family Chamaeleonidae.