Chameleons are among the world’s most fascinating creatures. They are found in many tropical and subtropical regions of the world. One notable exception is the Americas (the Jackson’s Chameleon is found in Hawaii, but is not an indigenous species. Many of these reptiles were accidentally introduced to Hawaii and have established a large colony since Hawaii’s climate is similar to the region of Africa where they live.) Many of the adaptations that these reptiles possess are seen in no other animal on earth.
They have the ability to change color, not only to match their surroundings, but also based on their mood. Some people have referred to them as a living “mood ring”. As an example, one of my male Red-Phase Panther Chameleons changes to a bright red/orange color when he is defending his territory or sleeping, black when he dislikes something in his environment and dull to moderate red & green colors when everything is normal. By understanding his color moods, I can understand what is happening within his environment. There is a lizard found in the southeastern United States, which also has a limited ability to change colors. It has wrongly been given the name “Chameleon”, but is no relation to true chameleons. It is the Anole, a member of the family Polychrotidae, which was formed by the subdivision of the family Iguanidae in 1989. This lizard can only change colors based on its surroundings as a defense mechanism. It lacks the ability to change colors based on its mood or intent.
- The chameleon’s eyes function independently. They have the ability to see two objects at once. Each eye is equipped with two lenses, giving the chameleon the ability to judge distance with only one eye, an adaptation that is seen in no other animal in the Animal Kingdom.
- Chameleons catch their prey with a sticky, club-like appendage on the end of their tongue. A chameleon’s tongue is nearly as long as the length of their body and tail combined. Just to give you an example, the tongue in a 36″ Oustalet’s Chameleon is approximately 36″ in length. A Chameleons prey can consist of anything from small insects, such as fruit flies and crickets, to rodents and small birds. The Meller’s Chameleon has been nicknamed “The Bird-Eating Chameleon” due to its ability to catch and eat small birds.
- The chameleon’s toes have been fused together into two opposing sets in order for it to firmly grip branches and leaves. This adaptation is especially useful since, with few exceptions, they lead a mostly arboreal life.
- Chameleons have a prehensile tail, which they can use as a fifth hand.
- Chameleons can lay eggs as much as three times per year. The incubation period of the eggs depends on the species, but the average period is 6 to 12 months. A female can store enough sperm from a single mating to fertilize an entire year’s supply of eggs. There are both egg-laying and live-bearing species of chameleons.
- Chameleons are highly territorial. They will attack any other chameleon in their territory. The only exception is when a gravid female enters a male’s territory.
Chameleons have very special requirements for survival, whether in the wild or in captivity. Too many individuals acquire chameleons as pets or for research, but do not understand their special needs. If you are planning to acquire a chameleon, either as a pet or for a breeding or research program, you should be aware of the following requirements;
- First of all, never purchase a wild-caught specimen. There are many breeders, like myself, with years of experience, who can provide you with a top quality chameleon that is free of parasites and is well adjusted to human contact. Due to their territorial nature, chameleons are highly susceptible to stress. Human contact is very stressful to a chameleon since they view us as a predator. Many wild-caught individuals die of stress or parasites prior to sale. Many species of chameleons are also rapidly disappearing in the wild, so to do your part in Chameleon Conservation, purchase only captive-born individuals.
- Ensure that the chameleon is in good health. It takes someone with many years of experience in chameleon care to bring one back to a healthy state, and even then there is no guarantee. Do not feel sorry for the runt of the litter. Starting with a healthy specimen gives you a much better chance of keeping him/her in good condition. Make sure its eyes are not sunk in and its skin appears elastic, not dried out. These are signs of dehydration, which is one of the main killers of chameleons in captivity, second only to stress. Make sure the chameleon you purchase is active. If it is always sleeping, this could be a sign of stress.
- Your chameleon’s cage should be fairly spacious and well ventilated. The cage should have screen on all four sides and the roof. Avoid glass enclosures. If you can see your reflection in the wall of the cage, the chameleon can see his/hers as well. Chameleons are very territorial and will see its reflection as an intruder that does not back down. This is very stressful to a chameleon and could lead to its demise.
- You should provide living plants if possible. Chameleons do not drink from a water dish like many other reptiles do. They lick water droplets from leaves and branches. Live plants will provide a way for the chameleon to drink, as well as furnish fresh oxygen. DO NOT place a water dish in the chameleon’s cage. They will not drink from it and stagnant water provides a means for bacteria to grow, which could make your chameleon ill.
- Chameleons are insatiable drinkers. They should be misted a minimum of 3 times per day. If this is not possible, you can place a water drip system in their cage. Even with a drip system, you should mist them twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. This will provide them with plenty of drinking water and keep the humidity up to acceptable levels. Most chameleons come from regions of high humidity. The Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus), pictured above, is one of the exceptions. It comes from a relatively more arid region of Saudi Arabia, so its humidity requirements are less than other chameleon species. However, they still require plenty of available drinking water.
- Food should be provided daily. The main staple for captive chameleons is crickets. However, you should try to rotate as many other insects into their diet as possible. Other excellent food sources are Superworms, fruit flies, cockroaches, flies, and wax worms. Avoid mealworms. They have a very hard external shell, which is difficult to digest. Although rare, there have been cases where undigested mealworms have eaten their way out of the stomach of the chameleon. Also, chameleons have been known to get bored with eating if they are fed the same type of insect every day. So it is good to vary their diet as much as possible.
- Chameleons, as most reptiles, require a calcium/potassium ratio of 2.5/1, as well as vitamin D3. Insects are high in potassium. You can provide your chameleon with the proper amount of calcium/vitamin D3 using two methods, you can provide them with full spectrum sunlight, either by placing them outside to allow them to bask in the sun or by using an artificial full-spectrum light source. You can also dust their food a couple of times per week with a vitamin/calcium powder. Or you can use a combination of both.
Conservation is a very controversial subject. It seems that no two people are alike in their beliefs as to what measures should be taken in preserving any animal or plant species. Chameleon conservation is no exception. The following information reflects my own personal beliefs in conservation based on my experience and travels. I recommend that you read this article, compare it to the work of others and formulate your own opinion. There are no true experts in this field. If there were, then there wouldn’t be any more threatened or endangered animal species, and certainly there would not be another animal extinction. Yet, every year, many species of animals are becoming extinct in spite of the efforts of Conservation Agencies and Officials.
It is my belief that conservation is not just attempting to preserve these animals in their natural habitat. Conservation must take the following forms in order to preserve these creatures for posterity;
- Field study. We must not only learn everything we can about the habits of these creatures in their natural habitat, but we must also learn about their environment in order to understand what is necessary for their survival.
- Teaching conservation techniques to the local population where these creatures are found. This involves not only how, but why we should do everything we can to preserve these animals.
- Captive breeding programs. Even though field study is important, captive breeding programs are necessary to expedite our understanding of these creatures so that we can help them before it is too late. By reproducing their natural environment in a captive situation, we can learn more about them in one year, than we can in many years of field study. This is especially true of chameleons since they are very difficult to locate, not to mention study, in the wild. Captive breeding programs are our last hope for their survival in many cases, as well. If we have a strong captive population, there is still hope even if all of the wild populations are gone. Maybe if we had strong captive populations of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow or Dodo, they would still exist today.
Captive breeding programs create the biggest controversy when it comes to conservation. There are many who believe that by keeping these animals in captivity we are adding to the problem. I disagree, however. It is my opinion that captive breeding programs add to our knowledge of these species which aid in the development of conservation programs in the field. Also, it is human nature for people to want to own these animals as pets. As long as there is a market for these animals, there will be those who will do anything to fill this need at a substantial profit. Captive breeding programs assist in lowering the pressure on wild populations by providing good quality animals to those who are in the market for them.
In order to meet the demand for housing in a world where the population is growing by leaps and bounds daily, the forests of the world are dwindling. It is next to impossible to stop the devastation in poor third world countries where wood is their main source of income. This increases the challenge to protect these species. This is particularly devastating to species of animals that have trouble adapting to new environments, such as the chameleons. As mankind increases in population, the difficulty in protecting animal and plant species will increase as well. Field Conservation only works when the Government of the species homeland agrees to enact and enforce measures to protect these species. However, it has been my experience that these Governments only agree when it does not adversely affect their economy. There are countries that will not allow certain species to be removed as live specimens for research or breeding programs, but permit thousands of skins to leave the country to provide the wealthy with clothing and accessories that could be duplicated with man-made materials. It is a matter of economics. These skins bring in thousands, or perhaps millions of dollars into their economy, where live animals only bring in a fraction of that amount. Python and Monitor skins are just one example.
Chameleon Species and Traits
Oustalet’s Giant Chameleon
The Oustalet’s Chameleon is one of the largest chameleons in the world, reaching a total length of close to 36 inches. The largest chameleon on record was an Oustalet’s Chameleon that measured 39 inches. For this reason, it has been given the nickname, the Yard-Long Chameleon. In most species of chameleons, the male is the more colorful sex. However, the Oustalet’s Chameleon is one of the exceptions to the rule. The female is more colorful, but lacks the impressive size of the male. They also have a very strong grasp. Due to its long nails, the grasp of this species is considered somewhat painful. Though this species adapts well to captivity, they can be very aggressive. They have powerful jaws and can inflict a painful bite. All things considered, this is one of my favorite species of chameleons. Their impressive size, ability to adapt to new environments and their aggressive feeding behavior make them an excellent candidate for both intermediate and advanced chameleon keepers. I have successfully bred the Oustalet’s Chameleon. The incubation period for this species is 8 to 12 months. The hatchlings are slightly larger than Panther or Veiled Chameleons and can eat fly-size crickets for their first meal.
The Oustalet’s Chameleon is found throughout Madagascar. According to Loveridge (1957), this giant chameleon has been introduced into the Ngong Forest in the vicinity of Nairobi, Kenya (East Africa), as well. Its diet includes insects, small birds and mammals, and other, smaller species, of chameleons. There have been cases of large male Oustalet’s Chameleons making a meal out of young adult Panther Chameleons in areas where the range of these two species overlap.
Meller’s Giant Chameleon
Another exceptionally large species of chameleon is the Meller’s Chameleon. It has been given the nickname “the Bird-Eating Chameleon” due to its habit of eating small birds and mammals. It is also known as the “Elephant-Ear Chameleon” due to its two large occipital lobes. The Meller’s Chameleon has been known to reach a total length of two feet with a body of more than a foot in length. Its head is the largest of the chameleons, reaching a length of more than 3 inches. They have extremely large and powerful feet and legs. The Meller’s Chameleon is among the hardest to keep. They are very sensitive to stress, and have been known to drop dead for no apparent reason. This condition is known as “spontaneous death syndrome”. For this reason, Meller’s Chameleons require an environment that is infrequently disturbed by people. I currently have a large outside environment, which houses a breeding colony of this incredible species. Through selective captive breeding, I hope to produce a Meller’s Chameleon, which is less sensitive to stress and human contact.
This species is found throughout the Savannah forests of Tanzania, northern Mozambique and Malawi (Nyassaland). This is an extremely arboreal species, living high up in the tree canopy. This is one of the longest living chameleons. They can reach a maximum age of 15 years in captivity. Due to this chameleons high sensitivity to stress, only very advanced chameleon keepers should attempt to keep this species in captivity. That may change as more and more captive-born individuals are produced.
The Warted Chameleon is another species from Madagascar. The range of this species is similar to the range of the Oustalet’s Chameleon. Due to the similarity in the crowns of both of these species, the adult Warted Chameleon is sometimes mistaken for a juvenile Oustalet’s Chameleon. However, this species does not nearly reach the exceptional size of its close relative. Both the male and female of this species are exceptionally colorful. Wild-caught Warted Chameleons are less adaptable to captivity than the Oustalet’s Chameleon. The incubation period for this species is probably less than the previous two species mentioned. It is probably around 6 months.
The Four-horned Chameleon is a deep forest species from Tanzania. This species acquired its name from the four horns that protrude from the head of the males. This can be deceiving however, since males of this species can have as many as four to eight horns. The females do not have horns. They have exceptionally large eyes. There primary defense against predators involves clinging to the opposite side of a branch and carefully positioning their eyes on either side of the branch to watch the predator. In this way, they can watch the predator without being seen. Another interesting trait of this species is their amazing ability to jump. This species can jump farther than any other species of chameleon. I have seen individuals jump as far as four feet to get from one tree to another. They can also jump to the ground from exceptional heights by rolling themselves into a ball until they hit the ground. In this way, they protect their limbs. This is another nervous species, but they are much less aggressive than most species. This is another favorite species of mine, mainly due to their dragon-like appearance. Chamaeleo quadricornis rarely acquires a length greater than 8 to 10 inches. A cooler temperature must be maintained in their environment than with species from Madagascar. The ideal temperature is 73 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit. They can handle cooler temperatures if necessary. This species is primarily found in Cameroon.
The Panther Chameleon is probably one of the best known chameleons since there are many breeders of this species. They are, by far, the hardiest species to keep. This is the species that a first time chameleon keeper should purchase. This species is not as prone to dehydration as other species and they acclimate to new surroundings easily. The Panther Chameleon is a medium-sized species. Males reach a maximum length of 20 inches. Females are less than half the size of males. Even though there is a lot of controversy surrounding the different color phases of this species, I disagree with the concept of distinguishing this species by color. This species should be distinguished by the region of Madagascar from where it originated. In my opinion, the most beautiful variety of this species comes from Ambanja. There are also distinct variations that come from Diego Suarez, Nose Be and Sambava, as well as a few lesser know varieties. The Panther Chameleon is easily recognized by their well-pronounced rostral appendage. There is also a controversy surrounding the Panther Chameleon’s scientific name. Many herpetologists have placed them in a new genus named “Furcifer”. However, I still consider them a member of the genus “Chamaeleo”. The Panther Chameleon, regardless of the variety, is one of the most beautiful chameleons in the world. Depending on the variation, they can be primarily blue, indigo, violet, green or red, or combinations of these colors. A true Red Phase Panther Chameleon is a very striking animal, with bars of red and orange running the entire length of its body. The Ambanja Blue Phase has bars containing multiple shades of blue and green. The females of all color phases have a very drab coloration compared to the males. Panthers are highly aggressive towards each other due to their territorial nature and should always be housed separately. The only exception is during mating, but, even then, you should carefully watch the pair’s reaction when introducing the female to the male’s environment. If either chameleon shows any sign of aggression, you should immediately separate them. Then you can make another attempt in a couple of weeks.
In conclusion, chameleons are one of nature’s most beautiful and unusual creations. Their strange adaptations have caused some people to speculate that they came from another world. Regardless of their origin, they deserve our respect and assistance in preserving their natural habitat. It would be a great loss to permit even one species of chameleon to fall the victim of extinction.