Chameleons In General
Although we’ll only be concentrating on one particular species of chameleon in this article, there are actually over 160 known species around the world. The majority of these are found in Madagascar. Chameleons can also be found in Africa, Sri Lanka, and India. But you’ll need to look up to find them. Very few species make their home on the ground. Most prefer to dwell high up in the trees where they blend in with the leaves.
Chameleons have very few natural defenses against predators. Short of trying to blend in with their surroundings, there are really only three other options.
Ã?Â· Increasing their size by expanding their rib cage as they inflate their lungs
The Jackson’s chameleon, the species we’ll look at in this article, is also known to use the “fall over and play dead” defense. Chameleons will also change color as a means of defense but that method works best with other chameleons – not when you’re about to become some snake’s supper!
A Rather Colorful Pet
One of the most intriguing things about a chameleon is it’s ability to change it’s color. But how the heck do they do that? Hormones, basically. The top layer of the chameleon’s skin (the epidermis) is transparent. Beneath the epidermis are cells that actually contain pigment in a variety of colors. By contracting and expanding these cells, certain colors become more prominent than others.
Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
This phrase doesn’t just apply to the chameleon’s ability to disguise himself. You could also be referring to the chameleon’s prey. Our lizard’s weapon of choice? His tongue. You would probably never guess that inside that tiny little mouth lies a tongue as long as his body. When not in use, the tongue is folded up like an accordion. But when an insect crosses his path out comes the tongue – often so quickly that you don’t even see it! When the tongue unfurls, the tip of it inverts so that it becomes like a suction cup. Gotcha!
You Can Call Me Jackson
Now that you know a little bit about chameleons, let’s talk about one of the easier species to keep in captivity – the Jackson’s chameleon.
Native to Kenya and Tanzania this species has also become established in the Hawaiian Islands. This occurred in the early 1970’s after a pet store owner released 35 of them into the wild.
Today, Jackson’s chameleons are one of the most popular species kept by hobbyists. Capable of living 10+ years, they are also relatively easy to breed. And with their three horns, the males really do resemble dinosaurs!
Crickets For Dinner Again?
Chameleons are insectivores. Most likely your new pet’s primary source of nourishment will come from crickets. Live ones. When you keep chameleons you also get to keep crickets. So if you really, really hate bugs you’d best consider a different pet.
But if you’ve managed to convince everyone in the household that it’s OK to keep bugs indoors, read on.
Crickets are available at most pet stores and are usually sold by size. If you’re not sure what size to get, tell the clerk what species of chameleon you have and roughly how big it is. While you’re there don’t forget to pickup a “Cricket Corral.” You’ll need something to keep the little guys in.
Now, repeat after me. “What goes into my crickets, goes into my chameleon.” Yes, you’re going to have to feed the crickets as well. And for the health of your chameleon this diet should not include corn chips, donuts and pizza. Your crickets need their veggies. Broccoli, kale, if it’s green and it’s leafy, it’s a good choice. Sliced apples and orange sections are other foods your crickets will enjoy. Feeding your crickets a nutritious diet prior to them being eaten is called “gut loading” your insects.
Of course when you feed an animal you’ll also need to deal with what comes out the other end. Please keep your cricket cage clean. The easiest way to do this is simply dampen a piece of paper towel each day and wipe it across the floor of their cage. No need to take the crickets out, they’ll move out of the way fast enough. You might also take this opportunity to remove any dead crickets.
Given that most chameleons are fiercely territorial, the specifics I give for your pet’s housing will be based on keeping just a single male.
There are two primary considerations when purchasing a terrarium. The first is the length of your pet. A male Jackson’s chameleon can grow up to 12″ in length. The second consideration is that this particular species likes to spend its time living in trees and is an accomplished climber. This means that you’ll want a cage taller than it is wide. A good-sized habitat for a Jackson’s would be three feet tall by 18 – 20″ wide.
Terrariums can be purchased at your local pet store or online. To keep your pet healthy you’ll want to purchase a cage that is constructed from wire mesh. This will allow air to circulate more freely.
When it comes to interior decorating, bear in mind your chameleon’s natural environment. You can make his home as elaborate or as simple as you’d like, providing he has something to climb, preferably with leaves.
A very simple setup would include one or two potted Ficus plants. You could also use ivy, as long as it was trained to grow upright. If you’d like to add a little color, orchid plants are a good choice. You can also purchase artificial branches to arrange throughout the enclosure. I prefer to keep the base of the cage free of any ground cover. This makes it easier to keep clean.
Being a cold-blooded animal, your chameleon will need a source of heat. Although the Jackson’s chameleon doesn’t like it quite as warm as some of his other chameleon cousins, he would still prefer a daytime temperature of approximately 80 degrees. A basking lamp will take care of this job. He’s also going to need a source of light that provides both UV-A and UV-B rays. Fluorescent tubes have been designed specifically for this task. Again these are available either online or at the pet store. You won’t need any special equipment to hang these up, they can simply rest on top of the cage. Try to position the basking lamp to one side of the cage so your chameleon can venture in and out of the heat as he likes. Don’t leave the lamp and the fluorescent light on overnight. A Jackson’s chameleon prefers a nighttime temperature as low as 60 degrees. Plus, he needs his sleep as well!
The Importance Of Moisture
One of your main responsibilities when keeping a chameleon is to make him feel like he’s in New York City in July. We’re talking humidity here. Somewhere between 85 and 100%. But just hang on a second before you start turning your house into a giant sauna. There are easy ways to accomplish this.
Ã?Â· A Drip Bucket
For about $30 you can purchase a humidifier from the drugstore. Fill it with purified water, set it up beside the cage and switch it on. This is probably the easiest way to keep things moist.
Another option is a drip bucket. Get a large plastic bucket and poke some very tiny holes in the base (sewing pins are good for this). Place the bucket on top of the cage and fill it with water. As with the basking lamp, try to place the bucket so that the chameleon isn’t constantly being dripped on.
The third option is to mist the cage frequently throughout the day. Of course if you work during the day, this won’t be an option. Be sure not to spray your chameleon, he won’t appreciate it. Instead, mist the top of the cage so that the water falls like rain.
A Word About Conservation
When you finally decide to purchase your chameleon, you may be faced with two choices – wild caught or captive bred. I urge you to choose the captive bred. A captive bred specimen means your chameleon will have been born in captivity and not imported from the wild. It also means that you will undoubtedly end up with a much healthier, less stressed creature.
The Challenge Ahead
As you may have gathered by now, a chameleon is definitely not a feed it and forget it type of pet. But although it may seem like a lot of work at first, it’s quite easy once you get a routine down. Timers can be purchased to turn on the lights and the humidifier. Crickets, providing they are purchased from a reputable pet store, can live for up to two weeks. And Jackson’s are one of the hardier breeds so there is less likelihood of your pet becoming ill.
This has been a rather basic overview to the joys of keeping chameleons. If you decide a chameleon is definitely for you, I encourage you to continue reading about them, either online or at your local library. There are a number of very good books available on chameleons and they are readily available. Good luck with your new pet!