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Old World Chameleons: Captive Care and Breeding -Dr. Rob Coke, DVM
Old World Chameleons have long fascinated mankind
with their independently rotating eyes, their lightning fast
tongues, and their psychedelic color changes. Over the past
few decades, chameleons have been kept as a temporary pet --
living from a month to a couple of years. Within the last
five years, an increase in information regarding proper
nutrition, environmental conditions, and breeding has led to
longer life spans with individuals even over ten years old.
The next five years should bring even greater successes in
the areas of husbandry and breeding. Panther Chameleon - Chamaeleo pardalis - The Panther, or jungle, chameleon
originates from the northern part of
. They are the most colorful of the chameleons sporting an
array of colors from green to blue to red. They thrive in
warm, humid climates with a moderate seasonal fluctuation in
temperature. In the wild, they live in scrub forests (up to
10' tall) and on the edge of larger forests. These
chameleons are one of the species that are repopulating the
areas where the rain forest has been destroyed. They are
fiercely territorial, especially during breeding season.
Their vibrant colors and hardiness are contributing to the
increase in sales and captive ownership.
Chameleon - Chamaeleo calyptratus - The veiled chameleon originates from
. This environment is a mixture of extremes ranging the arid
desert to the temperate mountains. Veiled's are generally a
hearty species because they can tolerate either extreme;
however, they do best somewhere in between. Amongst
themselves, veiled's are one of the most aggressive species;
but towards humans, they are one of the most docile species.
These are the hardiest of the chameleon species and make
Chameleon - Chamaeleo
jacksonii xantholophus - The male
's chameleon has three ominous looking horns protruding from
his forehead. This variety of chameleon originates in
chameleon was recently introduced to
and supports a thriving population. They are a true montane
species coming from mountainous areas that have temperate
days and cool nights. Therefore, they must not get too hot
or too dry (i.e. > 60% daytime humidity and > 80%
Chameleons tend to be territorial and prefer to be caged
individually. They need to be housed in large enclosures
with trees, branches or vines and should not be able to be
see each other when caged apart. The presence of another
chameleon in the same cage or sight of another chameleon in
another cage may cause extreme stress and predispose them to
cage size for an adult male is 2'L x 2'W x 4'H – they can
tolerate a smaller enclosure, but will thrive in larger
cages (an adult does well in a cage 1.5'L x 1.5'W x 3'H).
The ideal cage covering is a vinyl-coated, metal mesh.
Un-coated wire welded mesh may be used as an alternative.
Hardware cloth is too rough and may cause injury to the
chameleons feet. Aluminum window screening is not
recommended due to the possibility of trapping and removing
claws. The wire mesh needs to be ½" x ½ " or
½" x 1". The large mesh provides good
ventilation, protection, and a visible barrier. The cage
should be set so that the top of the cage sits about six
feet off the ground thereby allowing the chameleon to perch
above eye level – providing a sense of security and
cage interior should attempt to mimic the chameleon's
natural environment. The inclusion of several plants and
twigs provides hiding places and makes the chameleon feel
safe and secure. Potted plants that can be safely used
Schefflera, Bougainvillaea, and Hibiscus.
Other decorative plants may include ivy, pothos,
or ferns. Plastic plants may also be used to facilitate
cleaning and hygiene but may not appeal to aesthetics.
Branches add to the cage environment and provide strong
support for the larger chameleons. The branches should be of
varying size to mimic the natural environment and prevent
foot damage/strain. The overall cage design should provide a
natural flow to allow basking/shade sites, and water/food
access. The most important thing to remember is to avoid any
potentially toxic plants or trees.
Lighting:Since chameleons are found in several types of
habitats, a proper cage should make use of different
lighting schemes. A fluorescent light can be used as a basis
of overall lighting in the cage. The bulbs should be of a
wide-spectrum, day-light type such as: Vita-Lite, ESU
Daylight, or ZooMed Repti-Sun 5-0. Remember that the basking
light you have placed (see below) also emits light. The best
source of light is the sun. It is recommended that
chameleons be allowed access to unfiltered sunlight for an
hour or two a week (weather permitting). This provides
natural levels of UV radiation allowing sufficient UV light
exposure (as with the fluorescent bulbs) to convert dietary
to its active form to allow the proper absorption of
Chameleons must have access to a water source. In the wild
chameleons will drink morning dew drops or raindrops that
collect on leafy surfaces. The best way to provide this
natural means of a water source is to mist/spray the cage
plants two to four times each day. Humidity can affect a
chameleons hydration status. Humidity levels should be
around 40-60% for Panthers, higher for Jackson's, and lower
for Veiled's. The presence of live plants will aid in
maintaining this level. Humidity can be enhanced with the
assistance of a cool-mist humidifier or a timed
misting system (a greenhouse or a manufactured type).
sources of water that have been used include the following:
A dripping water source can be made out of a plastic cup
with a pinhole in the bottom, a medical I.V. bag filled with
spring water set to a slow drip, or one of the commercial
water drippers. Another water source, though not very
effective, is a dish with an air stone set to bubble the
water to attract the chameleons attention. The BEST water
source is still routine misting/spraying three to four times
a day. With any of the water sources, the best way to make
sure the chameleon is getting enough water is through visual
signs of drinking or physically watering the chameleon with
a pipette or spraying water into their mouth on the tongue.
Chameleons come from various environments. Generally, the
tolerated ambient temperatures range from 70 to 85 degrees
for Panthers and Veiled's and 60 to 78 for
's (NEVER maintain
's above 82-84 degrees for long periods of time). Chameleons
prefer a temperature drop of about 10 degrees at night. They
also like to bask in the mornings to raise their body
temperature. A spot light should be placed above the cage to
allow basking during the day for Panthers and Veiled's. The
wattage of the bulb needs to be low enough to allow
only a 5 to 10 degree rise in ambient temperature at the
closest basking sight. A low wattage bulb will help to
prevent thermal burns, which can occur if a chameleon gets
too close to a bulb emitting too much heat. When placing
chameleons outside for sunning, the temperature needs to
monitored to prevent them from getting too cold or too hot.
A shade cloth or towel can be placed over one end to allow
the chameleon to hide from the sun when it gets too hot.
Alternatively, the cage can be set underneath the shade of a
tree to allow a mix of sunlight and shading. The best way to
monitor the temperature is an indoor/outdoor thermometer
with a remote sensor probe. The main unit can be placed on
the side of the cage and the probe can be move around inside
the cage to measure all of the various temperatures to
determine if they are in the proper range.
In the wild, the chameleon is an omnivore. They sit on tree
limbs waiting for their next meal to walk by. They will
visually stalk or even climb after their prey. The eyes,
which rotate independently 360 degrees, fixate forward on
potential prey. When prey is spotted they coat their tongue
with a sticky saliva, they open their mouth with their
tongue protruding slightly. The end of the tongue is a
bundled, accordion folded muscle surrounding a modified
hyoid bone. When released the tongue, roughly the length of
the chameleons body, shoots out, sticks to, and essentially
grabs the prey. The tongue then retracts pulling the prey
into the chameleons mouth.
eat a varied diet consisting of flies, crickets,
grasshoppers, butterflies, silkworms, roaches, arachnids,
waxworms, stick insects, mealworms, etc. The largest species
also can eat small mammals, small birds, and other lizards.
In captivity, this meal pattern is impractical. A staple
diet of crickets (Acheta)
can be supplemented with a secondary food source of
To prevent "food burnout" a treat type feeding of
silkworms, grasshoppers, butterflies, etc. or pinkie mice
can be very beneficial from once or twice every week to
every other week. If you elect to feed your chameleon
insects gathered from the wild or the backyard, remember not
to collect them in areas where chemicals and/or insecticides
have been used because the residues may be passed along and
harm the hungry chameleon. If possible insects should be
gut-loaded prior to being fed to the chameleon. This is
accomplished by feeding the insects a combination diet of
rolled oats, ground legumes, corn meal, fresh greens,
carrots, and sweet potatoes. An alternative insect food
source can be grain mixes obtained from a feed store or
co-op but make sure that they are FREE from any added
medications or chemicals. Additionally a calcium source –
such as Rep-Cal, alfalfa pellets, greens, or calcium
carbonate -- can be added to the cricket cage to provide
higher ingested calcium levels. The insects can be
"dusted" with vitamin and calcium supplements such
as Mineral-I, Rep-Cal, or Repti-Vite, but this should be
used only once or twice a week for adult males and two to
three times a week for adult females. Additional
supplementing is recommended for juveniles (3-4x per week).
A multi-vitamin should be fed once weekly for juveniles and
twice monthly for adults.
can be hand fed individual insects or the insects can be
placed in an opaque container (make sure the container is
kept clean and that it's not so tall that the chameleon is
unable to reach the insect at the bottom of the container).
We recommend that adult chameleons be feed 3-4x per week.
The veiled chameleons, especially adult males, are unique in
that they may supplement their water intake from eating
plant material and may often accept a small dish of leafy
greens and vegetables (the same for an adult iguana).
Handling:The act of handling chameleons will not kill them.
Some chameleons do become stressed when handled. If they are
sick with some other disease, then handling may stress them
beyond their physical capacity. Those chameleons should be
handled as little as possible. Most chameleons can be
handled with no problem. Some of the wild caught chameleons
are not used to being handled and may resist handling. With
these chameleons, handle only as necessary at first,
gradually increasing the frequency and duration to accustom
them to handling. Most captive bred chameleons can be
handled without any problems, though some captive bred
chameleons may resist being handled at the beginning.
general, chameleons will readily breed in captivity. Close
observation is required to determine when the female is
ready to be breed. When ready, the female will often attain
a very light coloration or in the veiled chameleon blue
patches along her sides. The female should be introduced
into the male chameleons cage to allow him to have
territorial as well as sexual dominance. In the presence of
a male, the female may act hostile but will immediately back
down and walk away enticing the male to follow her. He will
chase after and pin her down during copulation which can
last from to 45 minutes and may be
repeated over the course of several days. If she is not
ready, the female will turn black and hiss and attempt to
bite the male. At this point, remove the female and try
again the next day if she still shows receptive
and Veiled Chameleons:The
panther and veiled chameleons are oviparous (egg layers).
They reach sexual maturity after 6 months of age (veiled
females can reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months).
After copulation, the female will adopt a darkened pattern
throughout her gestation period (1 to 3 months). One month
into her gestation a large container of moist potting soil
needs to be placed in the cage for her to lay her eggs. The
soil level needs to be 6" to 8" deep and moist
enough for her to create tunnels that do not collapse, yet
not so moist that the eggs will suffocate once laid. A week
or two before laying, she will increase in weight, decrease
her appetite, and start to dig tunnels in the soil. An
alternative method for laying eggs consist of placing the
gravid female in a bucket (such as a standard five gallon
bucket) with an overhead light source and a few inches of
sand or potting soil. After laying, she will be noticeably
thin and lethargic. Check the soil carefully for
eggs. These eggs should be removed to another container
filled with moistened vermiculite for incubation. The
panther eggs can be kept at 77 degrees for the first couple
of months then raised to 80-82 degrees until hatching which
could take 6 to 9 more months. The veiled eggs can be
incubated at a constant 80-82 degrees for about six months.
Another method of incubation of panther and veiled eggs
consist of placing them in a dark closet where the
temperatures range from the low 70's to the low 80's. This
method may lengthen the incubation time but may provide a
higher hatch rate.
's chameleon is ovoviviparous which means that the female
will internally incubate her eggs and give birth to live
young. After copulation, the female will take a darkened
pattern throughout her gestation period of 4 to 6 months. A
week or two before laying, she will markedly increase in
weight and decrease her appetite. At 2 to 3 months into her
gestation, the female should be moved to a cage that has a
smaller screen mesh (preferably 1/8" square) to prevent
the escape of the tiny babies after birth. Because the
chameleon internally incubates her eggs, she may be prone to
stress and disease. Careful observation throughout her
gestation should uncover any problems.
Care: The small neonates are about an 1 to
1½" long. They need to be housed in an environment
that is temperate, 77 degrees, with little variation. They
also require a higher humidity (greater than 60%) which can
be maintained by periodic misting with water. They can be
housed individually or in small groups of 6 to 10.
Generally, cages can consist of glass or plastic enclosures
with screen tops and adequate lighting. The cage can be
modestly decorated with climbing branches, a potted plant
such as a Pothos
ivy or Ficus spp,
and no substrate on the bottom.
At two to three months of age they should to be separated
into individual cages.
difficulty with neonates lies with feeding. They must be
supplied with a constant source of food for the first couple
months of life. They can be fed small 1/8" to ¼" crickets,
fruit flies, or ¼" baby meal worms. The size of the
food can increase with age (generally the length of food
roughly equals the width of the youngsters head).
increase in popularity and importation of chameleons, many
different diseases are frequently being encountered. Before
a chameleon even becomes sick, a good veterinarian who deals
with reptiles (one who sees and treats chameleons frequently
is a bonus) should be located in your area. Signs that a
chameleon might be sick include: sunken eyes (dehydration),
not eating for days, listlessness or weakness, rapid weight
loss, abnormal swellings, regurgitation, very watery feces,
etc. Some chameleons may be predisposed to metabolic bone
disease (calcium deficiency) due to improper husbandry or
inbreeding, trauma due to intraspecies aggression,
stomatitis (mouth rot) due to improper husbandry, parasites
when not properly dewormed, egg-binding (dystocia) due to
not providing a proper laying spot, and foot/claw damage due
to rough coated or too small of screen. The best way to tell
if your chameleon is not well is to get to know its habits
and appearance. If a substantial change occurs in either
there is a good chance something is amiss.
Here is a short list of further
sources that will provide more detailed information.
1. Abate, Ardi and Ken Kalisch. Chameleon
Information Network: Newsletters #10,11 and 14.
2. Chameleon Care with Sticky Tongue Farms.
Videocassette. Prod. Steve and Linda Davison. Sticky Tongue
3. .Care and Breeding of Panther, Jackson's, Veiled, and Parson's Chameleons. Philippe de
Vosjoli and Gary Ferguson, ed.
: Advanced Vivarium Systems, 1995. 128pp.
4. de Vosjoli, Philippe. The General Care and Maintenance
of True Chameleons: Part I Husbandry.
: Advanced Vivarium Systems, 1990. 36pp.
5. de Vosjoli, Philippe. True Chameleons: Part II, Notes
on Popular Species, Diseases, and Disorders.
: Advanced Vivarium Systems, 1990. 29pp.
6. Glaw, Frank and Miguel Vence. A Fieldguide to the
Amphibians and Reptiles of Madagascar
. 1st ed.
: Moos-Druck, 1992.
7. Le Berre, Francois. The New Chameleon Handbook.
: Barrons, 1995.
8. Martin, James. Masters of Disguise: A Natural History
: Facts on File, 1992. 176pp.
9. Schmidt, W. et. Al. Chameleons: Volume I - Species.
: TFH, 1994.
10. Schmidt, W. et. Al. Chameleons: Volume II - Care and