Care Sheet & Photos provided by Zen Reptiles
Duplicating a panther chameleon’s natural habitat begins with a careful examination of each element they face in the wild, and the harmony between them.
Chameleons have adapted to several unique natural conditions that make them both a challenge & pleasure to keep.
We’ll start with the Sun:
All reptiles are cold blooded, requiring both high & low temperatures to thermoregulate. This aids in the digestion of food and proper organ function. A tropical species, chams are exposed to Sun all year round with little variation in both photoperiod and temperature. A photoperiod can be achieved with a light timer set to 12 hours on, and 12 hours off.
It is important to have a ‘heat gradient’ in the habitat so your chameleon has the freedom to move from a cool area to a warm area. For panther chams, temperatures should not exceed 85-88F for males & 82-84F for females* at the basking spot. The remainder of the cage should be between 72F – 82F. This allows them to heat up & increase their metabolism to digest food, and cool off when they’ve had enough.
The Sun is also crucial in providing UVB radiation which helps in the natural production & synthesis of Vitamin D3, which aids in the absorption of calcium into the body. Vitamin D3 is actually a naturally produced hormone, not a vitamin; cholesterol in the bloodstream is converted into D3 during exposure the Sun. To mimic the Sun, a mercury vapor bulb is your best choice – offering both heat & UVB from the same bulb. When you use a UVB bulb, it’s not necessary to use very much vitamin D3 powder. Too much supplemental D3 can cause kidney failure & paralysis, and should be given only once or twice a month. Mercury Vapor Bulbs often come in high wattages, and a built in dimmer switch is helpful in regulating temperature from the bulb.
If a mercury vapor bulb is not practical, a reptile-specific heat light or halogen bulb available at any pet store, combined with a second light designed for UVB such as a ReptiSun 5.0, will do the trick. We find that coiled bulbs last much longer than linear bulbs and will provide more consistent UVB radiation. You can buy a UVB Meter to measure UVB from both your lights & the Sun: here.
When the Sun goes down in Madagascar, it gets cool – down to 62F-65F. No light or heat is necessary at night & a drop in temperature by 10F during sleep is beneficial. Cool temperatures at night allow the chameleons metabolism to slow down, which anecdotal evidence has shown may lengthen the lifespan of your chameleon by a few years.
Outdoor caging during summer months is ideal – just beware of predators, and make sure there is enough shade to escape to when the Sun is at full strength.
Note* Females require less heat & less food than males, as higher temperature & food intake will cause an increase in egg production. Careful manipulation of heat is important to avoid eggbinding if you are not breeding your female; a maximum basking temperature of 84/85F is ideal.
The Sea & Sky:
Chameleons of Madagascar often inhabit coastal regions & small islands. ‘Nosy’ means ‘island’ in the Madagascan language. Nosy Be (pronounced ‘Bay’) is ‘Be Island’. Nosy Mitsio is ‘Mitsio Island’, Nosy Faly is ‘Faly Island.’
These locations are affected constantly by rain from the sky & wind from the sea. Chameleons have adapted some of the most advanced respiratory systems in the reptile kingdom partly to which have evolved for this constant changing exposure to dry & wet.
After a rain, the sea breeze dries the fallen precipitation quickly. Chameleons will seek shelter under the tree canopy during the rain, coming out shortly after to lap up water droplets which have formed on leaves & tree hollows. It is very important to mimic this common natural event by spraying your chameleon heavily for anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes* throughout the day. Then let it dry for at least one hour before spraying again. It must be BONE DRY before spraying again. Sitting water & constant high humidity will cause bacterial buildup and kill your chameleon. A single plant in the enclosure will maintain the minimum humidity at a comfortable 50% as the plant respirates.
Chameleons have evolved to drink rain water, which is the purest water found in nature. Similar to rainwater is Reverse Osmosis & Distilled. Because of the exclusive diet of rainwater, chameleons given hard water will often develop some mineral buildup issues.
Saturate the environment around the chameleon with water, but only lightly spray the chameleon itself to avoid getting water in the lungs. You may notice your chameleon bulging his eyes out when being sprayed – this is normal. He is ‘flushing’ his eyes with water to keep them clean and hydrated. Misting systems such as The MistKing set to go off 3-7 times a day is ideal. Set the nozzle to point at foliage to avoid the basking spot. Some people set spray timers for 5-10 minutes 2-3 times a day, or 2-3 minutes several times a day.
Location of the cage can severely impact the micro-climate you are trying to achieve. Avoid placing the cage next to a window or vent. A cold draft from a window in the winter or AC in the summer will kill a chameleon.
A base of 50% constant humidity can be achieved by using real plants. As the plants breathe, they will add moisture to the surrounding area.
Note* Baby chameleons only need to be sprayed lightly a few times a day on the leaves, as a few water droplets on the snout is enough to cause fluid buildup in their lungs, causing pneumonia & death.
A life in the trees is a life of climbing. Vines, branches, plants & trellises of varying sizes keep their grip strong. Foliage can be dense or sparse. Calm chameleons seem to prefer less foliage, shy chameleons prefer more foliage to hide behind. They are often found on bare branches soaking up the sun. A cage with many vines & 1-3 plants is ideal – plants should make up the bottom 60% of the cage (keep the bottom bare, plant them in pots), and the top 30% should be bare with some vines or branches to ‘chill out’ on as they bask.
Trees are also very clean in the wild, being washed regularly by the rains. Chameleons should be kept in a very clean environment, as they are very sensitive to bacteria buildup. They should not have a water feature at all. Many products feature chameleons on the advertising, but these water features easily fill with bacterial loads. They should never have water buildup at the bottom of the habitat. A drainage system can easily be rigged to catch water in a bucket below the cage by having a screen bottom.
The Insect World & Nutrition:
Keeping chameleons often results in a developed interested in the foods they eat; it’s likely you might try raising praying mantids, stick insects, silkworms or even roaches. Chameleons are arboreal, coming in contact with the ground only to change trees or search for mates. This means they have a diet that consists mostly of arboreal prey. The best variety of food are: silkworms, butterworms, grasshoppers, moths, cicadas, praying mantids & stick insects are all available from pet stores, the wild & other hobbyists.
Crickets, mealworms & superworms are great for common geckos & lizards found in the hobby, but chameleons do not do well on this diet alone. Crickets can be used as a staple diet as they are not far off from grasshoppers & cicadas, but caterpillar-like insects should be given regularly. Silkworms, Butterworms & Phoenix worms are better options than mealies & supers – wild moths are also relished by chameleons, but make sure the moths you capture are safe by checking online or posting a picture for insect experts to identify.
Offering the same food constantly will cause a hunger strike. Chameleons seem to prefer a constant variety of food, or they will go on a hunger strike lasting up to 6 weeks. Hunger strikes are often cured by offering grub-like insects & flying insects. These seem to stimulate a ‘thrill of the hunt’ response.
Since we cannot go to Madagascar to collect wild bugs, we must supplement the diet a little by adding vitamin & calcium powders. A plain calcium supplement can be used daily. Calcium + D3 can be used once a week or once a month. A multivitamin can be used once every two weeks. Keep in mind that with chameleons, less is more. The best way to ensure nutrition is to gutload insects with nutritious food, so their stomach contents act as a ‘vitamin capsule’.
The final element is you. Once an ideal habitat is established, your chameleon will depend completely on your care in order to survive & thrive. This is called ‘chameleon husbandry’. Chameleons are naturally solitary & territorial to their own kind, but can be fully tame to people, if raised properly. Aggressive chameleons are usually found from big breeders & pet stores who do not handle their babies. Buying a chameleon at a young age or from a small hobby breeder who has hand raised their babies will guarantee you have a calm adult. We handle all of our chameleons as hatchlings so they are calm as adults. An aggressive chameleon is a stressed chameleon – and stress kills!
To make your job easier, timers and gadgets help. Investing in a misting system & light timers is the best thing you can do.