True Chameleons

Perhaps not the best choice for novices, chameleons can make for fascinating, charming pets for someone adept at tending to their specific husbandry needs.


Last month I wrote about the American Anole, often falsely called the American chameleon. Given that, it seems right that I give this month’s column to its namesake: the true, or Old World, chameleon. Chameleons are one of the most popular and famous of all reptiles, and yet, they are unfortunately one of the least desirable reptiles as pets. They are, in a word, difficult. That said, we stock and sell a lot of them, so clearly there are exceptions and circumstances in which they can in fact thrive.

The difficulty with chameleons is the way they react to stress. Most lizards, from leopard geckos to water monitors, give fair warning when something is wrong, be it diet, heat, humidity or basic set-up. They go off their feed, sulk into lethargy, emit phlegm or otherwise send a clear signal that something is wrong, and they will do so for a course of several days. Once you correct the husbandry issue, they bounce right back, all offenses forgiven. Chameleons, on the other hand, tend to turn black, drop to the bottom of the cage and die within a matter of hours. This, to put it lightly, can be discouraging.

And yet, their charm remains. Much of that charm has to do with the extremes of specialization chameleons exhibit. They are by and large tree dwellers, and their evolutionary modifications to that end are fascinating.

First among those traits is their famous color-changing ability, which is largely completely misunderstood by the general public. Most people think chameleons change their colors as a rather elaborate form of camouflage. That is true of octopi and squids, but not so of chameleons. Their basic color is often a good enough cover against the backdrops they typically frequent, but if one moves a chameleon from a tree to a solid background of a different color, they will not strive to match it at all. They do change colors, of course, and for a dizzying amount of reasons: for example, they will lighten or darken to change their internal body temperature; they will change color to reflect mood or health; or they will change color to communicate with each other. They just won’t do it to match your plaid pants.

Chameleons are also one of the few reptiles with binocular vision, able to focus both eyes on a cricket or your face when needs be, and conversely able to operate each eye completely independently of the other, when that more suits their needs. This allows them to pursue two prey items simultaneously and makes them look a bit like a drunk stumbling home after a long night.

As unique as their coloring and eyes can be, the singularity of the chameleon does not stop there. Their feet are beautifully adapted to tree life, with the toes fused into opposing groups so as to better climb branches, giving them a permanent Mr. Spock salute. Their tails are fully prehensile, often acting like a fifth arm that helps them hang, balance and maneuver.  

And then there’s the tongue. Held in reserve, it is compacted into the base of the lizard’s mouth. But, when fully extended, it is generally as long as the lizard itself, and, with its sticky end, it proves to be a very effective hunting tool, allowing this tree dweller to capture prey without jeopardizing its position in the tree.  

Daring and Dazzling
Now, that’s a lot of specialization, but let’s not forget the ornamental nature of this little beast. In addition to the ornate patterns and colors with which chameleons can dazzle you, they are also outfitted with casques, horns and even sail fins. These actually do serve a purpose or two. So well hidden in the tree as to be nearly invisible, chameleons often recognize each other not by color, noise or smell, but by profile. Chameleons are gifted with the ability to spot each other simply by their unique profiles, allowing them to be well aware of each other while remaining hidden from everything else. When two males of many species do notice each other, they will often use their horns in a mock battle, testing each other’s strength, until one dominates and the other scurries away. Would that we as humans could settle our differences so easily.

And so, when a client comes into my store asking for chameleons, my first question is always “Have you kept other lizards?” If the answer is in the affirmative, I can then proceed forward. But if this is going to be a first pet lizard (and because of chameleons’ inherent charm and fascination, that is often the case), I jump through hoops and do cartwheels in an effort to persuade the customer to learn the basics of husbandry on another lizard, with the ultimate goal of one day keeping chameleons—successfully.

If the potential chameleophile has kept lizards, the next hurdle to jump is to choose a species. Because there are so many mini-climates in my neck of the woods, I always ask where the customer lives. One big key to keeping chameleons is to give them as much outdoor access and direct sunlight as possible, whether they be montane or desert species. However, the montane species generally like it cool and humid, whereas the desert ones like it, well, deserty.

There are four chameleon species commonly available to the pet market: Jackson’s, panther, veiled and dead leaf. Dead leafs are a group of small chameleons that break all the rules that chameleons in general have set up: they are leaf litter dwellers, have no prehensile tails and don’t change colors. They deserve a column of their own, as they are interesting and adorable little buggers.

The panthers are vividly colored and large. They are also a bit more on the fragile side, and really belong only in the hands of experienced herpers. Natives to Madagascar, with each of that island’s many bays producing its own color variant, they are tropical beings that want warmth and humidity.

The Jackson’s, or three-horned, chameleons are montane, wanting thick growth, relatively cool temperatures and high humidity. Even in a climate that fits the bill through most of the year, one would want the back-up of air-conditioning should a heat wave strike.

I think of veiled chameleons as the bulldogs of the chameleon world—sturdy, dependable animals that, due to being high desert dwellers, can take a wide fluctuation of temperatures (from blazing heat in the day to cool at night), and consume a surprisingly broad diet, including some vegetation. Their Achilles heel is humidity, insisting on dry heat to do well.

All of the arboreal chameleons need a cage with cross ventilation, and will suffer in a standard tank, but none more so than the veiled. One can mist them twice a day for drinking water, but the cage needs to be ventilated and warm enough so that the water evaporates quickly. Of course, a strong UV light is also essential.

I have touched on the mere basics in this article. Before you even stock, much less sell, any chameleon, it would behoove you to do a lot of research on the species you will be working with. As I have said, they are difficult, but far from impossible, and, if done correctly, can be a major draw to your store.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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