When I was little boy, my Saturday mornings were spent exploring the local canals, swamps and woods. Saturday afternoons, however, were devoted to escaping the heat of the day with a TV double-feature: a monster movie hosted by M.T. Graves, and, inevitably, a Tarzan movie. What a perfect fantasy: life hundreds of feet high in the trees in the perfect nuclear family. When I was a little older, I built my own little tree house, and while it was a mere 10 or 12 feet off the jungle floor of my imagination, it worked well enough.
There is something primal and haunting about life in the trees, and many of us maintain the fantasy with our herpetological hobby. Some of the most spectacular creatures with which we work live in the canopies of the world.
In my store, we maintain a section of cages that start at eye level and go up three feet from there. Those remote cages would not necessarily seem like a great draw, but people seem to gravitate to them. They are as popular as anything in the store. Most of them feature a small ficus tree, and a few of the more intensely heated ones use carefully chosen plastic plants and grape wood instead.
Arboreal caging is not only a necessity in our line, it creates the dream-world imagery that inspires the casual window shopper to say, “Oh, I have got to have that!” So, what can customers have?
A fascinating candidate is the pink-toed tarantula (Avicularia avicularia), an arboreal tarantula from Central and South America that is one of the few spider species that can live communally. A pink-toed tarantula can populate a terrarium with surprising density, if given enough food, and develop elaborate and sophisticated webbing. Given enough tree space, it will tend to web amongst the branches and leave the glass untouched. However, should yours decide to build a glass front condo, have no fear—if you destroy one web house, a pink toe will immediately set about building another, without resentment or recrimination.
It is, in fact, an amazingly docile, if quick, little spider, with a charming gait not unlike a tiny eight-legged dressage horse. One more thing: as cute as these spiders are, they are equally pretty. Typically, they are velvety black with pink toes. Their babies are even more adorable, with pink bodies and little black booties.
Another wonderful arborealist is the Icelandic tree tortoise (Chelonia cryptozoon), an elegant climber that spends its days munching the tender vines of the... just kidding. There are no tree tortoises.
But of course, there are frogs to be found up above. In fact, one of the major groups of frogs are called tree frogs, which is ironic in that most of the group are happier in low, broad-leafed shrubbery and in pond-side reeds. There are exceptions, including the spectacular red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), which by day folds up to near invisibility as it blends in amongst the leaves. At night, however, it opens its huge, blood-red eyes and forages for bugs. Those eyes may be the red-eyed tree frogs claim to fame, but I am at least as impressed with its robin’s egg-blue and pastel yellow stripped flash markings—side coloring hidden except when they leap, used for recognizing their own kind. Red-eyes are now commonly captive bred, and even the babies seem durable and reliable.
One of the most remarkable features of treetop denizens is their near-total adaptation to life above. Many rarely or never venture to ground. Among the most famous of these are the chameleons. We have a long row of chameleon enclosures—three-fee tall, with a two-by-two footprint, side ventilated and top heated.
Chameleons are, by the standards of exotics, notoriously fragile and problematic. When customers who are new to the hobby come in wanting one, I always recommend that they introduce themselves to lizard keeping with something relatively durable like a leopard gecko or bearded dragon. Those lizards will bounce back pretty well when husbandry mistakes are caught and corrected. Chameleons, not so much.
However, as chameleons go, a few species do stand out. I work in a geographic area with highly variable climates; my store experiences a mild, balmy Mediterranean climate most of the year, while 20 minutes east and over some hills, it’s more like the high desert. As chameleons so enjoy basking in natural sunlight, the specie to choose is best determined by the climate it will encounter.
Jackson’s chameleons (Trioceros jacksonni), the iconic three-horned little beasts, favor mild temperatures and high humidity. They are live bearers, and if treated well, will readily reproduce. Females lack the spectacular horns, so customers show a marked preference for males. Price them accordingly.
Like so many lizards, females will cohabit easily enough, but males are extremely territorial and will bully each other to an early grave. Thus, one male and multiple females will often make for an excellent community.
For my clientele over the hills, I recommend the veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus), a large and spectacular creature who is the veritable bulldog of the genus, with an adaptability and tenaciousness atypical of his family. These chameleons like high daytime temperatures but easily withstand cool nights. Low humidity is essential. Unlike most chameleons, they are not difficult to feed, enjoying a wide range of bugs as well as small lizards, baby mice and even some vegetable matter. I have often spotted them munching the leaves off the ficuses in their tanks, looking guiltily back at me, as if to say, “I know this is weird, me being a chameleon and all. Just move on, will ya?”
Probably the most trendy reptile pet of the last few years is the crested gecko (Rhacodactylus ciliatus), a lovely little gecko with highly variable color and patterning—its color actually intensifies at night—that spends its life entirely off the ground. It is nearly as handle-able as leopard geckos, but they do have a propensity to leap. Crested geckos also fare well in densely planted, low-heat, high-humidity situations. Small waterfall features are perfect in their tanks—think dart frog in a tree.
There are even a number of snakes that make fantastic arboreal denizens. One of the most common pet store snakes, the rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus), is actually a tree snake, though few people who buy them realize this, and they often perish as a result. While they spend their nights in the grass—or at the bottom of a cage—by day, they are in high brush and trees, sunning and foraging for insects. Thus they need a tall tank that can support this lifestyle, where they will thrive and can even be kept in small groups. Always remember, diurnal treetop dwellers like these, the chameleons, and even some tree frogs, crave sunlight and require appropriate UV lighting.
A more spectacular version of the green snake is the vine snake. Larger, and with a pointed snout so as to make the head look like a leaf at the end of the vine, these amazing snakes will sway in the trees imitating a vine moving in the breeze. The vine snake is one of the very few snakes with forward-looking eyes, giving them binocular vision and an expressive face. There are two major genuses, one from the Americas and one Asian. You are more likely to see the imported Asians, probably the specie Ahaetulla nasuta.
It should be noted that adult vine snakes feed almost exclusively on lizards, so they are a bit expensive to maintain. Also, technically, they are venomous. Being rear-fanged, they would need to chew on you for a while to deliver any venom, and as the venom is designed to subdue small lizards, it is mild. They pose absolutely no threat to humans, but the last thing you want is an irate parent going berserk because you neglected to mention this aspect.
Of the larger snakes, both the green tree python (Morelia viridis) and emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus) make fantastic planted-terraria dwellers as babies, though I find the adults far easier to work with in a simpler, more sparse cage. Of the two, I have found the pythons to be sturdier, and often easier to tame. An emerald relative, the garden tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) is sometimes as beautiful and a touch smaller, and substantially less expensive.
In the end, the fundamental drive behind our hobby is to bring a bit of the natural world back into our home. The inherent beauty of the arboreal cage, and the fascination of that world’s inhabitants, gives extra meaning to our own.
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.