Chameleons - Our first year
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Something a little different for this blog. Ordinarily these pages are lined with tiny plastic models painted in bright colours. This time however, I want to catalogue our brand new guests to our home, a pair of Panther Chameleons.
I hope on this page I can provide first time knowledge to anyone else thinking about becoming the custodians of these wonderful creatures.
But before I offer up our Chameleon diary, I want to cover the initial setup and vivarium.
When we were looking for advise on vivarium's, we found lots of sites from America and most of those dated back to the early 2000's. While I don't believe the information within these pages to be incorrect, I was looking for more recent advise and maybe not importantly, but advise from the UK.
It's important to note that the actual vivarium we've picked is very much due to the climate in England. Temperature here is often around 22 degrees Celsius in the summer getting higher on a good day. Humidity can often be around 50%.
To achieve the optimum conditions for a Panther (or Veiled) Chameleon in the UK, a glass vivarium is important to control things like temperature and humidity. Something you just couldn't do with a mesh cage.
For convenience of anyone reading this, here are the specs and items of our starter setup;
1 - Exo Terra Glass Vivarium, Large X-tall. 90x90x45cm
While you could purchase smaller vivarium's for baby Chameleons, please consider housing these animals in the biggest enclosure you can accommodate. Growing to adulthood aside, these are living creatures and deserve as much space as you can offer them.
2 - Compact Top Terrarium Canopy, Large. 90x9x20cm
This light fixture is designed for the top of the Large X-tall Viv we went for. It can house 4 bulbs on two independent switches. Currently is using a pair each of the below Exo Terra bulbs.
25w Daytime Heat Lamp x2
13w Reptile UVB 100 bulb x 2
Smaller enclosures are likely to only need a single bulb of each of these. Personally, we've installed these pairs of bulbs on a circuit/switch each. That way we can completely turn off the Daytime heat lamps while leaving the UVB bulbs on.
Importantly Chameleons need all of the bulbs listed on this blog. While picking up our Panthers this morning we overheard a family talking to the pet shop manager about their sick Chameleon. Two things I worked out eaves dropping; That one they had bought this animal as a pet for the kids. Do not do this. While kids can participate with the care of a Chameleon, the onus is on you the adult, to look after them. Secondly, this family had failed to provide a UVB bulb. Their Chameleon was severely unwell due to this. They left the shop without purchasing said bulb...
There is a lot of misinformation on UVB bulbs out there with the loudest in the Chameleon community stating that you shouldn't use the coiled bulbs ever and instead go for a tube light. This just isn't factual and mostly comes from one terrible entry level kit that aimed to supply everything you'll need from your Chameloeon right off the shelf. From my understanding the bulb supplied with this wasn't suitable and happened to be a coil design.
If you want to know more on lighting and Chameleon husbandry in general I would suggest research from the Chameloeon academy;
3 - Ceramic Reflector Clamp Lamp
To provide a basking spot for your Chameleon, you'll need a basking lamp. We purchased the above Clamp Lamp, a 150w Daylight Basking Bulb and a self adhesive support to hang the ceramic lamp shade above the top left of the vivarium.
This also came with a thermostat to regulate the 150w bulb. A neat bit of kit that the lamp plugs into rather than the wall socket. It acts like a dimmer switch for the Basking light depending on the temperature within the viv.
4 - Exo Terra Combometer
To monitor the cooler section of the viv and the humidity, we picked up a combometer. It attaches to the top of the enclosure and monitors the stats on a small LCD display.
5 - Misting
Chameleons need moisture in the air and absorb a lot of this at night time. During the day you'll need the the humidity to be around 60-70%. At night, this needs to be closer to 100%. To start with, we picked up a hand held pump action mister. As I currently go to bed quite late I'll make sure to mist the enclosure before calling it a night. You can purchase automatic misters which we might look into later on, but with a sealed glass viv, I worry it could get too saturated in there.
6 - Substrate
There are two choices here that I am aware of, standard bark or "artificial" forest floor or the Bioactive substrate. The artificial substrate is cheaper but I believe this to be a false economy as this will need to be partially or fully replaced each month.
We opted for the Bioactive substrate which allows for the use of live plants and greatly improves waste management.
For a Bioactive setup you'll need the following;
Clay balls to line the base 5cm of your viv.
A mesh layer to prevent the clay balls mixing with the substrate.
The substrate itself such as an earth mix
Lastly, a layer of forest floor bark.
You'll also need to introduce a colony of insects to act as those refuge collectors. We bought two tubs of Springtails and two packs of Giant Orange woodlouse. The Springtails are small enough to go unnoticed but the woodlouse, they're not so lucky. In fact our male Panther spotted one within a few hours of being in his new home. That's an ex-woodlouse now.
5 - Foliage.
In most cases you might start off with fake plants and we certainly have a couple of those to begin with, just while the real plants establish. I'll aim to come back here and add to the list of safe plants we have in our vivarium but our first selection was a Golden Pothos (AKA Devils Ivy).
Chameleons require foliage for two main reasons, to drink water droplets from and to hide within. While our male has spent his first day in plain sight, the female has tucked herself away hidden in the leaves.
6 - Water
Water. Not surprising that you'll need to consider your water source and while the misting will certainly help you'll also need some kind of dripper. Before investing in a automated version, we've settled with a container placed on top of the viv with pin prick holes in the bottom. This can simulate rainfall in a certain part of the enclosure when topped up and we're getting a dish to catch most of it below to not flood the vivarium.
It's important to also include lots of branches for your Chameleons to navigate their enclosure. If you're picking fallen branches from a local woodland like we did, avoid any near the beaten path. Worst case the branch is covered in pesticide from the local council.
So with the housing listed off, I want to share with anyone reading this our journey with our two Chameleons. Originally we aimed to purchase 1 male Panther due to the colours they display. However while on the waiting list at our local pet shop one male arrived with 1 female. We're told they hatched together and have so far spent the their first 6 months alive together. Now I can't say for sure that either one of them would be concerned if they didn't see the other again, but my own humanity couldn't be the reason they were separated. For now, I'm told as infants there is plenty of space for the pair of them in the extra large viv. The aim is to house them separately before they reach adulthood but time is currently on our side.
Our male chameleon has been named Duke on account of his subspecies being a Nosy Mitsio. Nosy seemed a likely nickname and historically, the nickname nosey was given to another. So the Duke of Wellington was the inspiration. Here he is at the pet shop;
and here is is day one of his new home;
Duke seems to be exceedingly mild in his temperament and pretty happy to sit front and centre in the vivarium. He has also displayed limited fear of the humans walking around him.
Within the hour of being in his new home, he fired his tongue off at a branch. There was nothing there as far as I could tell but I took this as a cue he was hungry. He showed no concerns with eating a locust out of my hand.
Duchess was the obvious counterpart for our female panther. While Duke is confident, Duchess is shy. The journey home from the pet shop obviously didn't go down well with her and she shot out of the box as soon as we got home. She has spent most of day 1 hidden amongst the leaves and only came out when I was feeding Duke.
Both chameleons spent a lot of the first day displaying dark tones and this could be an indicator of stress. While I don't doubt the drive home wasn't stressful for them I was happy to see their colours brighten when the basking light when off at sundown. Chameleons darken during their sunbathe to absorb more heat and Duke almost instantly brighten up when it was off.
Duchess has picked the small plastic branch pictured above as her sleeping spot. It's high up, hidden and out the way. Just like we were told is their preference for sleeping. On the other hand, Duke has fallen asleep on an exposed branch front and centre of the viv.
25th of July, 2022
So it's been a couple of months and boy has Duke been growing. More on him in a sec.
First however I wanted to record some of the research we've done on Chameleon safe plants as after the indoor viv was completed the summer weather came in and I built an outside cage for them (mainly Duke) to get some fresh air when we're outside in the hot sun.
Chameleon safe plants for the UK
Bear in mind that this is a list of (mainly) indoor plants. There isn't much info on outdoor plants for an outside cage in the UK. Mainly due to the fact Chams wouldn't live outside here. We only put ours in the outside cage if the weather is suitable and have a Thermometer/Hydrometer on it to check if the day is suitable for prolonged outside time.
Weeping Figs aka Ficus Benjamina (Avoid Zulu fig, fiddle-leafed fig, and creeping figs)
Compact Dragon Tree aka Dracaena compacta
Hibiscus - Difficult to grow indoors, prefers the outdoors and would be a good pick for an outside UK viv. Not that the Chams would stay outside all year.
Chinese hibiscus aka Hibiscus rosa-sinensi
Schefflera Tree aka dwarf umbrella tree
Swiss Cheese Plant aka split leaf philodendron (most philodendrons are very toxic to Chameleons)
Jasmine - Somewhat suitable for outside use in the UK.
Gardenia - Somewhat suitable for outside use in the UK.
Geraniums - Will survive outside in UK but probably won't come back after a frost.
Wax Begonia - Will survive outside in UK but probably won't come back after a frost.
Petunias - Will survive outside in UK but probably won't come back after a frost.
Nasturtiums - Will survive outside in UK but probably won't come back after a frost.
As for the outside cage itself, I deconstructed an old planter and increased the length of the uprights to 2.3m. Rest of it is plastic mesh and a few odds and sods to make stay together.
So far only Duke has been in it but it does give him the chance to climb higher than he can indoors.
As for the Chams themselves, I wanted to show you how much Duke has grown. The first picture here was taken on the 31st of May, the other on the 1st of July.
17th of June 2022
18th of June 2022
1st of July 2022
10th of July 2022
17th of July 2022
18th of July 2022
Duchess has been harder to photograph as she's always hiding from us. However she is getting braver and will venture out from time to time.
18th of June 2022
2nd of July 2022
8th of August, 2022
With this entry I want to cover off the Chameleons diet and list the bugs we've ended up looking after... to a point.
I hadn't really considered this before owning a pair but Chameleons can be fussy eaters and Duke certainly turns his nose up when offered certain insects.
Duchess had a period where she wouldn't eat in front of us. We'd have to walk away completely for her to eat. Now she's gotten better, she'll fire her tongue with us around but she'll just hold the bug in her mouth until we walk away.
First up however is transferring the insects from the small plastic tubs you purchase them in, into larger containers. If left in these disposable tubs, with the small amount of dry food and upturned egg carton, they won't last very long. To keep our insects alive for the week (and longer) we ended up buying 3 larger containers each measuring about 30cm long. They have vented lids with a hatch on the top for easy entry.
The insects are then separated into these containers based on species and fed. They're normally pretty hungry by the time you get them home from the shop and offer them some vegetables.
This brings me to another important part of Chameleon husbandry, Gutloading. Feeding the food basically. If the insects are healthy and full of vitamins, then so are your Chameleons.
You'll also want to supplement the chameleons diet with vitamin powders. We dust every meal time with Calcium powder (Habistat Natural Calcium) and one day in every fortnight, we swap this out for a multivitamin mix containing Calcium and Vitamins A, C, E, D3 and K3.
Calcium is very important as it helps keep their bones strong as captive chameleons won't be getting the calcium they would in the wild.
You'll be wanting to look out for silent crickets. We accidentally bought regular crickets once and boy are they loud.
At first we kept buying the medium sized silent ones but noticed Duchess didn't often go for them. Recently we've bought smaller ones and they're now a stable mealtime choice for her.
They have a habit of escaping and more often than not they'll break their own legs off when you pick them up with tweezers. We've found the best way of feeding chameleons crickets is by placing the insect in a cup and resting that in the enclosure. Duchess normally spots this pretty quickly and gets them from above. Duke however has gone off crickets.
You move one near him and he'll go into targeting mode. Both eyes front, calculating distance, tongue ready to fire, then realise it's a cricket and turn away. We've tried feeding him crickets first and occasionally he'll go for it but for the most part, he'll wait, knowing there's something tastier if he does.
Crickets will bite you too, so we tend to only use the tweezers when picking them up.
To keep the crickets fed, they seem to eat the dry food they come with and have a preference for carrots.
So based on Duke and Duchess, I'm going to give Crickets a 3/5 for both taste and nutrition.
Our main purchase is each week is boxes of locusts. Both chameleons will go for these and I've not seen either of them turn these insects down. They're easier to grab due to their hind legs and don't tent to immediately and deliberately fall of the stick you place them on like the crickets.
I've not had a locust bite us (yet) and tend to be pretty docile when handling them.
They have a preference for leafy green and we often load up their little dish with lettuce.
I'd give locusts at 4/5 for taste and a 3/5 for nutrition.
These smaller roaches are meant to be a great food source for chameleons but it's only Duchess who will go for them. They don't seem to be able to self right themselves if placed on their back but we use the same cup method we do for crickets when placing them in the vivarium. Dubia roaches will bury themselves if dropped in the substrate so you need to think about how to feed these to your chameleons.
I've not tested if these roaches bite and have only ever picked them up with tweezers.
They're meant to eat starchy foods like potatoes but honestly, I've never seem them eat anything. Still alive however, somehow.
So based on Duchess and internet research, I'll give roaches a 3/5 for taste and a 4/5 for nutrition.
The best way I've heard someone describe these worms are like "Chameleon hamburgers". Apparently very tasty but shouldn't be a regular mealtime option. Both chameleons will always go for these so I guess the taste thing must be true. We tend to feed these to Duke and Duchess once a week and the worms seem to eat the dry food they come with.
We've had once box last weeks and only recently noticed that they're not so energetic anymore.
They will also bite so it's a tweezer into dish action. If they manage to crawl out of the dish they will bury themselves in the substrate like the roaches.
So I'll give these a 5/5 for taste but only a 2/5 for nutrition.
The only other insect we've kept are Black Crickets. Bigger then the regular ones on average and they're also more aggressive. In so much as they do seem to stand their ground to one another and will fight other species of crickets if placed in the same container.
Neither chameleon seemed to care for these so we don't buy them anymore. I think they're extra crunchy and it was too much effort for the lizards to eat them.
Lastly a little mention for Meal Worms. While these are readily available everywhere, they are of no nutritional value to chameleons. Bit like eating cardboard.
So with the insects covered off, I'm going to end with a couple of videos and images. First up is Duke in his outside cage having his lunch.
and some good news in the second video. First time we've managed to get Duchess to trust us enough to step onto our arm. I held my hand out for about 4 minutes with a locust just out of reach of her tongue. I'm hoping this is a small step towards her knowing nothing bad is going to happen if she does climb on us.
Then to finish off this entry, here are some pictures of them from this week. We're working towards our second Vivarium to house them separately but for now, they're still young enough to not bother each other in the same setup. Especially with a large X-tall encloser.