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Author: Leslie Tsen (B.S.) Ecology, Evolution & Natural Resources. Wildlife Conservation
The Chamaeleonidae is a relatively small family consisting of about 202 described chameleon species (since 2015) distributed largely throughout Madagascar (up to a whooping 85 species live here), many countries and territories in mainland Africa including Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia; Southern Africa and only very few species are found in Southern Europe and India. Chameleons are fascinating creatures. They come in many forms and sizes with Brookesia micra being currently the smallest reptile (reaching a mere 2.9cm) known to humankind. Not all chameleons are suitable to be household pet; in fact, some of the rarer chameleons found only in the tropical forest of Madagascar are facing extinction due to habitat lost from deforestation. If you really want to keep a pet chameleon, choose one that is found more abundant in the wild such as the mediterranean chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon), Jackson's three-horned chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii), veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus), and panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis). Larger chameleon can typically live longer for about 4 to 7 years while the pygmy type tends to live shorter from just 1 to 3 years and is also generally endangered.
Chameleons are instinctually born to hide from sight, so excessive handling or observing can and does stress them out. Some will eventually get used to the presence of their human keepers, but some might never will. If your chameleon is the uptight type, let them be. It is just a part of their nature to be shy and stealthy. Most chameleons are solitary and territorial with the exception of a few pygmy species. Housing two males together will lead to unnecessary fight and constant stress if the enclosure is not big enough.
Chameleons are arboreal species. This means that they live high up in the air and more precisely within the tree canopy. To house a chameleon, tall cages/vivariums or mesh enclosures are more suitable than a short, horizontally lengthened enclosure. Screened top terrariums with lots of vertical climbing spaces combined with an adequate amount of horizontal spaces for daily activities are highly recommended. Keep in mind that chameleons do not just “cling” onto tree trunk; they use their zygodactylous feet to grip and travel between smaller twigs and branches in the tree canopy. Without sufficient background vegetations to hide from and braches to climb onto, your chameleons will likely stressed out as they generally preferred to stay hidden in the wild. Hardwood live plants with lots of leaves and branches such as ficus and pothos trees are often recommended, as these can be also eaten by your chameleons.
Chameleons are diurnal species. A full spectrum light with adequate amount of UVA and UVB is essential to their well-being. Much like other lizard species, chameleons do need to bask to increase their body temperature. Therefore, a heating lamp is also essential if you are housing your chameleons indoor where heat gain from natural light is not accessible. High humidity also plays an important role for the health and comfort your camoflaging ninja buddies. Most if not all wild chameleons are tropical species living in warm, moist jungle. Without proper humidity, your reptilian friends will have a hard time shedding their skin, suffer from reduced renal function, and will have problem laying eggs. Drippers and misters can help to maintain a relatively high humidity at about 50-70% similar to that of a tropical rainforest setting. Chameleons are stubborn little fellows that need to be trained to drink directly from a water bowl. In the wild, chameleons drink from drips of water from leaves.
Chameleons are mostly insectivores, but they do occasionally feed on smaller reptiles, amphibians, and even birds and mammals that they can fit into their mouth. Silkworms can be fed to growing juveniles due to their exceptionally high protein content. However, these are rather hard to come by in certain countries. A more realistic approach will be to feed your chameleons with gut loaded crickets dusted with calcium as staple and occasionally some mealworms and superworms (these are high in fat) for treat.
Ideally, your chameleons should be fed 10-20% of fruits and/or vegetables in their diet. Fiber in fruits and vegetables will help your chameleons to pass on stools easier while eating dark leafy green such as collard, mustard, turnip and dandelion greens will provide them with invaluable natural vitamins and minerals. Some great examples of fruit include papaya, apple, mango and cantaloupe. It is important to note that some of these dark leafy greens have an exceptionally high calcium to phosphorus ratio which can help to balance out the high phosphorus to calcium ratio of a primary insectivory diet.
One of the more common health issue among captive chameleons is hypocalcaemia (low in blood calcium). Being primarily insectivores, chameleons gain very little dietary calcium by consuming just insects. Although the natural diet of wild chameleons is also low in calcium, wild chameleons have adapted by eating a wide varierty of prey items so that their body and organs can function properly even with just low calcium reserved. Being the over-zealous pet keepers, we often find ourself feeding too frequently or giving the wrong type of food to our beloved pets when they asked for more. The dietary requirement of calcium has therefore increased as we increase the food containing phosphorus to our pet's piet. Calcium deficiency can cause many illnesses under the umbrella term "metabolic bone disease". These include deformities in legs, spine, soft bones and jaws; loss in appetite, weight loss and lethargy. Supplying proper amount of calcium and providing sufficienct UVB lighting can often help to reverse or entirely prevent the development of metabolic bone diseases.
Another cause to be concerned of when caring for chameleons is dehydration as they often do not recognize water bowls as sources to drink from. When the humidity is too low, your chameleons will likely suffer from many physiological issues such as reduced renal function, unable to remove toxic wastes from the body as well as to shed, and might even have trouble laying eggs. To prevent this, make sure the humidity is maintained at about 50-70% to better mimic a tropical rainforest environment. Use a water spray or dripper to provide a drinking source for your chameleons.
Hypovitaminosis A or simply vitamin A deficiency can happen in chameleons with the most typical syndrome of swollen eyelids. It also causes other issues such as discolored skins and weakened immune system which will lead to bacterial and fungal infection especially in mouth. Vitamin A deficiency can often be prevented through supplementing sufficient vitamin A-rich food via dietary mean. Some great examples of fruits and vegetables include dark leafy greens, carrots, cantaloupes, and mangos. If your chameleons are sick, take them to the nearest veterinarian clinic at once.
Disclaimer: This article contains materials referred from published scientific journals and is strictly meant for educational purposes only. It must NOT be substituted for any forms of medical care, treatment, and consultation from veterinarians, aquatic experts or other licensed professionals. NO compensation shall be reimbursed by Harvest Fish & Pet for the direct or indirect loss, damage, injury, or death of both living (user included) and non-living beings caused by the application of information from this article either in full or in part.