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Old World Chameleon Care

By: Dr. Rob L. Coke

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Chameleons are appealing in appearance and their mystical ways of changing color are fascinating. But they are demanding animals, especially in their captive environment. Over 150 species of chameleons are known today, with over half found on the Island of Madagascar. The rest are located in the main continent of Africa with a few species located in Southern Europe, Southern Asia, and Hawaii.

Chameleons inhabit a wide range of climates from the edges of the Sahara Desert, to the alpine grasslands in the mountains of Uganda, and to the lush tropical rainforests of eastern Madagascar.

Chameleons range from a diminutive 1 inch to over 2 1/2 feet in total length. Males are generally more colorful and possess ornate protrusions (horns) compared to female chameleons.

Depending on species, captive-bred male chameleons generally live 4 to 6 years in captivity, whereas captive-bred female chameleons live only 2 to 3 years in captivity. Wild-caught or imported chameleons do not live as long in captivity and may only live for a few months to a few years.

Chameleons are generally best for intermediate reptile keepers. Therefore, prior reptile experience or reading would be beneficial. The following species are common in the pet trade and made good choices as a first chameleon.

Panther Chameleon (Chamaeleo pardalis)

  • Geographic range: Madagascar
  • Variable colors (red, green, blue, yellow, orange)
  • Hardy species – repopulating deforested regions in the wild

    Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus)

  • Geographic range: southwestern Saudi Arabian peninsula
  • Brightly colored males (greens to yellows)
  • Extreme environments – seasonal wadis to arid desert

    Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus)

  • Geographic range: Mt. Kenya, Africa and Hawaii, USA
  • Imported into Hawaii in the 1970's and survived successfully
  • Montane species – high humidity and cooler temperatures

    Housing

    Chameleons tend to be territorial and prefer to be caged individually. They need to be housed in large enclosures and should not be able to see each other when caged separately. An ideal cage is at least 24 inches by 24 inches by 48 inches and cages should be taller than wider.

    Glass aquariums may be used for juveniles but do not provide adequate ventilation. If housed in aquaria, chances are that they will develop stress-related diseases such as upper respiratory infections. Also, glass enclosures promote a good place for bacteria to grow.

    The cage should be a screened enclosure. The mesh size commonly used is 1/2 inch by 1 inch and is galvanized but may be purchased with a plastic coating. Hardware cloth and window screens have caused foot damage to chameleons and are generally not recommended.

    The cage interior should mimic the chameleon's natural environment and the overall design should provide a natural flow to allow basking/shade sites and water/food access. Provide plenty of foliage and branches for your chameleon to climb on make him feel safe and secure. Allow multiple basking sites and hiding sites. Plastic plants may be used but live plants are better such as: ficus, schefflera, hibiscus, bougainvillea, ivy (Pothos spp), orchids, tillandsia and ferns.

    Leave the base/floor of the enclosure bare because gravel or bark may be accidentally ingested if the chameleon misses the insect. If a cage substrate is necessary use indoor/outdoor carpet, Astroturf, newspaper or paper liner. The cage should be checked and cleaned daily if needed.

    Lighting

    Chameleons love the sun and the more you can provide, the better, although you should never place a chameleon outdoors in an aquarium; temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit can be reached within minutes.

    They require full-spectrum lighting including ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB). The ultraviolet light is used for activation of Vitamin D which is then used for calcium absorption. Fluorescent light bulbs made specifically for reptiles provide a portion of the UV requirement (Reptisun 5.0, Vita-Lite, Reptile Daylight). Ultraviolet light does NOT pass through glass or plexiglass.

    Natural sunlight is the best source of full spectrum lighting and UV light. This may be achieved thru permanent outdoor caging or temporary caging during temperate climates.

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