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Mastering the Care of Chameleons

Updated on May 24, 2009

When is a lizard not a lizard? Believe it or not it wasn’t all that long ago that chameleons were classified as an infraorder of their own. Lizards were considered to be Rhipoglossa (chameleons) or Sauria (all the others). The radical anatomy of chameleons led even the great anatomists to separate them from other lizards, features such as: a long protrusible tongue, casque-like head, unusual feet without palms or soles, a tail that is most mobile on the horizontal plane, and acrodont teeth. Other features distinguished the chameleons, including their independently moving eyes and color changing abilities, but these features (along with the acrodont teeth) are not unique to the flattened Old World reptiles, and today they are considered extremely close relatives of the agamids. In fact some herpetologists have united the agamids and chameleons into a single family, Chamaeleonidae.


Museum collections were never short on chameleon (which comes from the Greek for “ground lion”) specimens, but few zoos exhibited the animals until the 1980s. It may seem hard to believe today, but these remarkable lizards were long considered the most difficult of animals to keep in captivity. Captives would eat, drink, and apparently thrive until, one day, the keeper would find a dead specimen in its enclosure. If you could find an Old World chameleon on a dealer’s list in the 1960s or 1970s, there were few in stock and the prices were high.


Then came the big breakthrough when keepers at the Zoological Society of London discovered that chameleons could be kept alive and well in terraria that had plenty of ventilation. Many keepers quickly capitalized on this discovery and learned to provide better diets, keep males separate, and other husbandry necessities. By the mid 1980s there were a few notable chameleon breeders in the United States and Germany, and by the 1990s the husbandry procedures were so well established that several species are now considered good beginner’s lizards! It is only the rare reptile show that doesn’t have a dealer or two with a range of beautiful chameleons sitting statue-like on posts around the booth. I still find it hard to link the words “chameleon” and “hardy” in the same paragraph.


The popularity of these odd creatures has produced a wealth of new information over the past decade. Herpetoculturists including Ardi Abate, Philippe de Vosjoli, Sean McKeown, Ron Tremper and others have advanced the care and breeding of these lizards to a par with many commoner reptiles. The Chameleon Information Network (at chamnte1@aol.com). Herpetologists like Christopher Raxworthy, E. R. Brygoo, Wolfgang Böhme, and Frank Glaw, have been establishing details about their natural history and describing new species. Tours to Madagascar led by successful breeders such as Bill Love have also become more popular in recent years, and many people are getting the chance to see chameleons on the lizard’s home turf. But along with this increased access to Madagascar has come a steady flow of very distressing news: many species can no longer be found. This applies to geckos, skinks, mantella frogs and other vertebrates as well as chameleons. Some have been collected by museum scientists, described, and never seen again.


This is not because the museum herpetologists are over collecting. Madagascar is instead loosing natural habitat to rapid and increasing human exploitation. Ponds and forests that investigators visited one year are not there the next. The same problem that plagues so much of the planet is particularly acute on Madagascar, an island so large and unusual that one biologist calls it “the eighth continent.” So many of its habitats occupy only small areas of the island, so even minor incursions are disastrous.


Chameleon aficionados represent a small but significant percent of the herpetocultural community, and many species are now almost completely available as captive bred animals. Still, they do require special care that is quite different from that needed by other lizards. If you are a chameleon novice, please do your homework before acquiring one of these enigmatic lizards. There are several good husbandry books and articles, the resources of the Chameleon Information Network, and a good many breeders who will be only too happy to make sure you remain a happy—and potentially repeat—customer.


Dr. Sprackland is Director of The Virtual Museum of Natural History at curator.org, a non-profit Internet-based source of information about animal life, evolution, and biodiversity. His latest book, "Giant Lizards" second edition, was released in March 2009 by TFH, Inc.

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