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Chameleons as Pets

Unique in both appearance and lifestyle, Chameleons are instantly-recognizable to reptile enthusiasts and “regular” folks alike. Their fantastic color-changing abilities, unbelievably-long, bug-snaring tongues, and rotating, turret-like eyes have placed Chameleons at the top of reptile keepers’ “must-have” lists for decades.

Although they are not suited for beginners, several species of Chameleons do quite well as pets if their needs, including huge, planted cages and a highly-varied diet, are met.

Classification

The world’s 198 Chameleon species are classified in the family Chamaeleonidae and the infraorder Iguania.

Range and Habitat

Over 80 Chameleon species, many found nowhere else on earth, live on Madagascar, while mainland Africa is home to 100+ species. Only 2 species live in Asia, and both are restricted to India. The Middle East and Europe each support 2 species. Veiled Chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) and Jackson’s Chameleons (Triceros jacksonii) have been introduced to the USA (Hawaii, Florida) and Mexico.

Chameleons have adapted to life in dry woodlands, arid scrub, brushy grasslands, rainforests, desert oasis, montane forests (where they endure snow), village gardens and even city parks.

With very few exceptions (i.e. the Namaqua Chameleon, Chamaeleo namaquensis), Chameleons are arboreal, with different species favoring bushes, low limbs, woodland understories and forest canopies.

Appearance and Temperament

Unique characteristics for which Chameleons are well-known include a tongue that may be longer than the body, pointed, independently-rotating eyes, a “swaying” walk that mimics wind-ruffled leaves, joined toes that assist in grasping branches, a prehensile tail, and astonishing color-changing abilities.

Chameleon color changes are mainly used to communicate and assist in temperature regulation. Recent research has shown that at least some Chameleons also utilize color as camouflage…and that they try to match their surroundings more closely when sharp-eyed predators are seen than when those that hunt by scent are observed!

Chameleons vary greatly in size. The world’s smallest, the Pygmy Leaf Chameleons (Rhampholeon spp.), are barely 1.5 inches long when fully grown while the largest, the Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti), may top 30 inches in length.

As regards their reactions to people and others of their kind, Chameleons are best described as “rabidly antisocial”! Individuals placed together for breeding must be watched carefully, and nearly all Chameleons are stressed by handling.

Chameleon Housing

Ample space, cage height, and ventilation are key factors in successfully keeping Chameleons, with commercial screen cages being preferable to glass aquariums. Large individuals are best housed in custom-made enclosures. Chameleons are quite shy, and will not thrive without dense cover in the form of live and artificial plants, vine tangles and numerous branches.

Chameleon Diet

Chameleons will not survive long on diets comprised of crickets and mealworms alone. A variety of insects, calcium and vitamin supplementation, and exposure to UVB is essential for success with these fascinating lizards. Larger species, such as the magnificent Parson’s Chameleon (Calumma parsonii), may benefit from the occasional addition of a pink mouse or house gecko to the diet.