alive chameleon reptile

Is there any doubt that the most intrinsically fascinating of all living reptiles is the Chameleon? It embodies all that is “other” about reptiles—color changes; odd eyes, feet and tail; horns, crests and other adornments; and resonance with our universal interest in dinosaurs. On an almost daily basis, I am asked by first timers in the store if we have them (yes), where they are in the cage (hidden) and if they can buy one (not advisable). 

This takes folks aback, who clearly think it’s what they really want as a first reptile. So, I explain: Unlike cats and dogs, it is difficult to extrapolate reptiles’ needs and care from our own experience. They operate differently, and keeping them requires a learning curve. With most reptiles, if your husbandry is incorrect, they will let you know. 

They might hunker down at the bottom of the enclosure, or struggle to get out. They might darken up, or seem to sulk. They will refuse to eat. Somehow, you will get a clue, modify what you do and your pet will respond in kind. But chameleons? Generally, their first response to problems is to drop dead. You might as well name the entire group Stress Monkeys.

And so, I suggest that customers learn the ropes of lizard keeping on a more forgiving animal: Gecko, Dragon or Skink. Once they have a feel for the general strictures of reptile care, then they can move on to Chameleons. Those who take my advice have a much better chance of success and will tend to become fans of herps in a sense both more serious and enduring.

I live in one of those parts of the country blessed to have a wide range of climates in a relatively small area. On many days, I can drive a half hour in several directions and see temperatures raise or drop as much as 35 degrees. Because of this factor, and because chameleons really benefit from spending at least part of their time in outdoor basking enclosures, we carry a variety of chameleon species. 

We also have little variation from season to season, allowing our animals greater access to sunning cages throughout the year than those whose seasonal changes are more extreme. If your climate is more geographically monochromatic and more seasonably variable, you might choose to carry a particular species more in line with your weather. To my mind, the three basic species on the commercial market are the Jackson’s, Veiled and Panther.


Jackson’s Chameleon

The Jackson’s Chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii), originally native to East Africa but now thoroughly entrenched in Hawaii, is the icon of the family, famous for the “triceratops” horn arrangement (a feature of the males) and color changing from bright green to black. Black, by the way, is a color associated with extreme stress; beware! 

They are a montane animal, preferring high humidity and moderate temperatures, mid-70s to mid-80s. Temperatures in the 90s will prove fatal, and keepers fail when they presume this to be a standard tropical animal. They are almost exclusively insectivores.

A word about Chameleons’ eyes, one of their very unusual attributes. This is one of the few reptiles capable of binocular vision, which is a modification relating to their lives in trees. The advantage of binocular vision is that it allows them to see in three dimensions, which hugely important to judge distance. But those strange turreted eyes cannot only focus together; they can also operate independently, which means the chameleon can track two bugs in wholly different places simultaneously. It gives me a bit of a headache just trying to imagine such a feat!

Like most of the family, Jackson’s are shy animals and are best not handled, though they are not particularly defensive if you do. Behavior that seems acceptable to many people looks to me like the poor thing is just frozen in terror. They really are best observed and not disturbed.

Almost all Chameleons need an arboreal cage with cross ventilation and UVB lighting. Jackson’s are no exception, but will also want an automatic mister or miniature waterfall to keep the hydration factor well covered. They are the frogs of the lizard world.


Veiled Chameleon 

By contrast, the Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus), is a high desert animal from the scrub regions of Yemen, and will suffer terribly if kept too humid. In the wild they are dew drinkers, and so to that end a quick misting on the glass every morning and evening is sufficient exposure to water. Make sure the cage is ventilated such that the droplets evaporate within a few minutes. Being high desert creatures, they like a very hot daytime cage, ranging from 80-100 degrees. They are happy with the same temperatures at night or, at your discretion, the cage can drop to the 70s with no ill effect.

Another peculiarity of the Veiled is that they stand alone in the family for being omnivores, and will happily munch salads as well as the more traditional insect diet. I like putting ficus saplings in their cages, as they will happily munch the leaves from time to time, until they leave the tree bare and dead. Fortunately, they are commonplace and inexpensive at nurseries!

Veiled Chameleons are so named for the high crest they carry, especially extreme in the males. Combined with their flashy patterns of green, blue, black and yellow, they are a beautiful creature veering on gaudy. While not as placid as Jackson’s, they will tame down with just a bit of work. I think of them as the bulldog of chameleons; unusually resilient in terms of handling, diet and temperature, and the species I turn to when customers insist on having a chameleon without the commensurate effort of keeping other lizards first.


Panther Chameleon

The Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), a native of Madagascar, is the third most popular pet trade species and perhaps adheres most to the typical presumptions of reptile care: tropical temperatures, reasonably high humidity and pretty standard requirements. 

It is also explosive in its coloring, with each race (in the wild associated with particular bays along the coastline of the island) producing its own set of flamboyant patterns. That said, I have found them to be at least as prone to stress as the other chameleons and often more so. If Chameleons in general are not the purview of newcomers, these really should be reserved for advanced keepers.

One more word about Chameleons and their color changing ability: while it is true that they can change color and pattern, sometimes to amazing extremes, the reasons they do so is often completely misunderstood. They will change color to reflect their mood and to “talk” with other Chameleons, having specific colors and patterns that carry meanings to others of their kind. 

They will change color to modify their body temperature, lightening up to reflect the sun’s heat or darkening to absorb it. You know what they won’t do? They will not—ever—change background to match a pattern behind them. It just never ever works that way. For that kind of magic, you’ll have to turn to octopi and squids.

I always like to relate our captive and captive-produced animals to their lives in the wild, so I would like to conclude this short review with a story I learned from my father, who spent his teenage years in East Africa. 

He greatly admired the Masai, the statuesque indigenous tribes of the African plains, and told me how they respected but feared neither the rhino, the lion or even the elephant. They lived side by side with them and understood the body language required to make each of those mighty creatures respect them back. The one animal they feared to the point of terror—and considered exceptionally and even supernaturally dangerous—was the Chameleon.

Why? Because when they encountered the Chameleon, there was not a sound, motion or any kind of threat that would make the Chameleon respond. From the Chameleon’s perspective, we know that their strategy was to remain absolutely motionless, and to hope that their power of camouflage would protect them from these insane creatures yelling and gesticulating. But the Masai interpret that refusal to respond, so different from all other wildlife, to be a sign of their supreme dominance and power.

Isn’t that just like a human? Wrong again!  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.