Mounting branches in chameleon cages has been a classic challenge for years. The Dragon Strand Breeder series solved this by including Dragon Ledges standard with all models except for the Compact and Nursery Cage Systems. These exceptions are too small for the “DLedges”. But there definitely is a way to get solid wall anchors to mount branches. In this article I will go over a simple way to mount perching branches in a Compact Cage System.
Our strategy will be to mount branch ledges along the inside and we will attach our perching branches to these. Pictures will be worth more than words so lets get started!
This is the interior of a compact cage. I have already installed a foam area with two pots for planting live plants. This feature has nothing to do with the technique so don’t worry if you have no plans for a foam feature.
Your first job is to select thick branch chunks. 1/2″ diameter and above works well. We are going to be screwing a screw into it so it will have to be thick enough to handle it. These chunks can be a couple inches to the length of the cage. It is up to you. They provide the platform which you will rest or attach your perching branches.
Once you have a basic idea where you will attach your branches and branch chunks, drill holes in the wall that will act as placement for screws to go through. You can get a basic idea of where you should drill by placing the branch chunk on the outside of the cage. Drill at lest two screw holes per branch chunk.
We now use a hot glue gun to give a generous bead of hot glue along the length of the branch chunk.
You will now place the branch chunk so that the wood touches the drilled holes. These are where your mounting screws will come through so make sure they lead into solid parts of the branch chunk.
Now that the hot glue makes the branch chunk stay in place come from the outside of the cage and drill some pilot holes for your screws. These pilot holes should be smaller than the screw width.
Once the pilot holes are drilled, your mounting screw can go in. Use pan head screws with a washer to ensure you do not go through the relatively soft PVC plastic.
Build a anchor network that will allow you perching branches at multiple levels and directions to make full use of the available space.
And now add your perching branches! These branches may be hot glued to the branch chunks for a solid attachment.
Use your imagination and make a cage that uses up as much of the space as is reasonable. The design above gives me the basic climbing requirements and the two potted plants will provide cover and a drinking surface. A misting nozzle in the top right of the top panel will keep the cage nicely misted without blasting the inhabitants.
As with any product category, when multiple companies offer roughly the same product it can be hard to tell which way to go. Eventually, the consumer goes with price as there is no comprehensive way to put all the cage feature lists together. I will provide that service in this article. Of course, I am biased as I run a caging company, but I also began that company because none of the cages offered were designed by chameleon people and each had a different set of advantages. So I changed that and started Dragon Strand where I can ensure that our community has a quality option – with all the advantages in one product. Other companies have got the cheap-as-possible angle so now, with Dragon strand, you have the quality priority contender as well. This means the community has a wide range of options to choose from and with this article you can make an informed decision.
There have been a number of manufacturers of screen cages since the chameleon community figured out that they solved a number of housing problems we were encountering. As screen cages are somewhat a “nichey” business the companies came and went over the last decades.
We have since seen large scale imports coming from Chinese manufacturers. The quality left much to be desired and there were many complaints of, among other things, the screen rusting through. Since then, a number of retailers have done some design tweaks, fixed some problems, and have rebranded these cages.
In 2013 Dragon Strand was started to bring chameleon cages designed by a chameleon hobbyist to the market. Although I have used the same industry standard cage design to start off the cage line, I made it a point to remove the design flaws that we had been living with for so long in our hobby.
This is not to say the Chinese imports won’t work. They are functional and even the worst one will provide a good cage for your chameleon. There are none that I would recommend to run screaming from! If price is an issue then definitely go for the best price. You can use the chart below to see what you are or are not getting and make your decision as to how important that characteristic is to you.
In the Dragon Strand business model, I have sacrificed a lower price to bring a higher quality to our community. The lowest price point cage is already available so there is no reason for me to create another one. That is why competition is important. In his article, I will brag about what I offer, but I will also present an honest view of what is out there. The bottom line is that I am an educator for our community and I will continue to maintain that role.
There are 3 main considerations when selecting a screen cage for functionality and longevity.
1) Drainage Tray. The most important aspect of having a screen, or any, cage in your home is a drainage strategy. Chameleons and other arboreals need water to flow from the top to bottom whether via misters or drippers. This water needs to go somewhere. You want it out of the cage, but not on your furniture or floor. If the cage will be in a greenhouse or patio or any other area where water dripping to the floor is not an issue you are set. But if the cage is in the house, like most are, you will need something to catch the water. This is where a drainage tray comes to play. It is a tray that fits under the cage and catches all the excess water. Often evaporation takes care of the water, but with more aggressive misting schedules or humid environments, the water can be removed with a wet/dry vac or even a turkey baster. For some reason, at this time, the imports only offer substrate trays. This is a tray that goes inside the cage for people who want a moss floor or leaf litter. I offer them and enjoy creating naturalistic environments with bio-active substrates. But these are not suitable for taking the place of a drainage tray because they are inside the cage. The last thing you want to do is maintain a puddle of water at the bottom of the cage to marinate the poop. That is what a substrate tray will do. I have been amazed that the import companies wouldn’t change their offering as they cater mostly to chameleon people. Perhaps this article might inspire some changes? But as for you, the chameleon keeper, make sure you have a drainage solution. All Dragon Strand cages have appropriately designed drainage trays available. Unfortunately, since our cages have a slightly different dimensional design, my drainage trays will not fit other companies. Changing the dimensions of my trays to accommodate other cages would then increase the already high shipping cost to my customers and my first responsibility is to them.
2) Rust proof. Imported cages gave us a nasty surprise when they sent over coated metal screen cages. These eventually wore down and our screen rusted through. A number of the brands requested this fixed and were then sent aluminum screen. Although, as can be seen by the chart below, not all the companies made this necessary change. Many companies brag about using stainless steel components, but simply take a magnet to their cages and you will find that not all the other components are stainless steel or aluminum (magnets will not stick to stainless steel or aluminum). What is the point of marketing that you have a stainless steel component when the hinge pin or screws or something else is not? As of March 2015, I have been able to replace the last zinc-plated component on my cage so Dragon Strand takes the distinction to be the only cage manufacturer that can say their cage is truly rust proof. Not just some components, but all components are either stainless steel, aluminum, or plastic.
3) Door Handles. Seems so simple, but, yes, door handles are an issue for manufacturing as they increase the cost of the cage. They also complicate packing the cage for shipping as to do it right you have to make sure the handle doesn’t scratch the rest of the cage. But without a door handle, you must you’re your cage door from the top or bottom frame. This constant stress up or down can eventually bend the door frame. Not to mention, if the door is tight, constantly having to jam your finger in just to open the door is a pain. That was one of the first requirements for my design. And, yes, look for handles for both the main and service door! Dragon Strand, of course, has handles for both doors.
This comparison was done in March 2015. All cage brands in this study were purchased within the last four months and the chart was created by personal test and inspection of those cages. It is important to note that companies eventually respond to public demand, so they may change in the future. I pride myself in pro-actively integrating the features we need for our chameleons. That is an advantage of being a chameleon keeper. I do not need my customers to get back to me with what needs to change. I am my customer and I know what we need.
Aluminum Screen: The screening is the first component to rust. There is no excuse for offering a cage that is coated metal. If a magnet sticks to the screen of your “great deal” cage you now know why it was such a great deal. Complaints about rusting screen were common and it is unfortunate that the companies offering imported cages needed public complaints before they changed to aluminum screen. Unfortunately, since imported cages come over in case loads even a company that says they have changed their design may have a warehouse full of metal screen cages that will still be sold to you.
Door Handles: Tired of trying to open doors from the top or jamming your fingers underneath to lift up the service door? Me too. All Dragon Strand cages have door handles on both the main door and the service door.
Service Door Stops: Make sure your cage has a way to keep the service door (the bottom door that flips up for easy cleaning) held closed.
Vine Holders: These are the loops that can be installed on the top panel and have the strength to hold artificial vines. A nice touch which makes adding a vine easy.
Substrate Trays: Substrate Trays fit inside the cage and provide a basin to place a moss floor. As mentioned before, these are for creating a naturalistic environment. This is not the usual use case for a screen cage. Note for Chameleon Keepers: Companies that offer substrate trays instead of drainage trays are obviously not chameleon people. The last thing you want to do with all the water we need to run through our cages to hydrate a chameleon is mix it with chameleon poop and keep it inside the cage. I get a number of inquiries from people asking about drainage solutions for Reptibreeze, Jungle Hobbies, and DIY cages. The cage dimensions are not exact to mine so I cannot help. These companies that buy from Chinese suppliers tend to offer substrate trays. I find it curious that the people who decided to create mass-produced chameleon cages did not actually try to keep a chameleon and find out how bad of an idea this is.
Drainage Tray: Drainage Trays are the trays that fit underneath the cage. These trays allow the water to flow out of the cage for disposal in a manner appropriate to each keeper’s situation (either wet/dry vac or by user installed bulkhead for gravity drainage). As of this point in time, Dragon Strand is the only company with an appropriately sized drainage tray for the 48” tall screen cage which allows complete use of the service door.
Made in USA: Why is it important where the cage is made? In this case it is a quality issue. Dragon Strand uses the longest running USA cage manufacturing company to produce its designs. This means I can monitor quality for every ten cages produced – not by the container load from China. If there is a problem it is dealt with immediately. I know my manufacturer personally and we collaborate on effective design both for the chameleon and for shipping integrity. I know his obsessive approach to quality and that is what I need to make available the cages we chameleon keepers deserve. Made in China allows lower pricing, but there is a quality cost that comes with that. I cannot do hit and miss in this area.
100% Rust Proof: “Mostly” rust proof is acceptable in most cases. This becomes a problem only in high humidity environments. The new 100% rust free design is the reason that Dragon Strand was chosen by ChamEO chameleon rescue to re-cage their greenhouse facility. All Dragon Strand cages ordered and shipped from this point on are made completely by non-rusting components and materials. Do you live in humid environment? Come on by and check out the cages that will not rust.
This is my community. I intend for us to have the best.
This article takes you through basic chameleon cage set-up requirements. I will review the basic principles that should be applied to any enclosure type whether screen, solid side, glass, or free range. We will go over how to carry them out effectively and, in this case, exceptionally.
I will review the caging elements needed and provide a brief overview of products. The important part of this process, though, is not necessarily that you use the same components I am using, but that you absorb how I am using them and what purpose they serve. I will be using the top of the line equipment to achieve the optimal screen cage environment allowed by the products available today. In chameleon caging equipment you truly do get what you pay for so I caution against going into your chameleon cage setup with the idea of getting the cheapest possible items. What you save up front will be paid on the back end in the form of your time, replacement costs, and even vet bills. That said, once you understand the principles of a chameleon cage setup you may transfer them to your particular set of equipment.
Each of the elements of a chameleon cage could fill a chapter themselves as far as their comparison and selection. In order to get to the important part of this article – chameleon cage setup concepts and philosophy – I will list the products I am using with a brief reason and leave it to the reader to do whatever research is necessary for the products they are considering. In this demonstration I will be using the following products:
1) Dragon Strand Large Keeper Screen Cage. This 48” screen cage is an appropriate cage size for an adult chameleon and has enough room to create distinct environments. This cage size is commonly found among the different manufacturers. Although Dragon Strand has a higher end chameleon cage in the solid/screen side Breeder Series, I will use the screen cage version as that is the most common cage amongst chameleon keepers.
2) Dragon Strand Large Keeper Drainage Tray. This is a PVC tray that fits under the cage to collect excess misting water. As drainage is a critical part to a successful system ensure your cage manufacturer offers a drainage solution or you must develop one yourself.
3) Dragon Strand Dragon Ledges. These accessories allow us to mount branches and live vining plants to the walls of the screen cage without stress to the screen. These allow a freedom to create much more effective interior environments. Since this is a large cage we will use a five pack to maximize our landscape options.
4) Automated Mist System. A mist system is critical for your chameleon’s health. It ensures that water is available to your chameleon whether you are home or not. I use both Mist King and Cli-mist systems and am very happy with the results. As we are using a screen cage int his example, the nozzles would have to be directed in a way that they do not spray towards the cage walls and moisten the walls or furniture around the cage.
5) Arcadia 24” T-5 Quad Bulb Fixture. T-5 bulbs give off much light in a small package. The quad bulb package has UVB, Daylight, and Plant light bulbs. Your lighting solution must provide both full spectrum daylight as well as UVB light. I have a dedicated appliance timer driving the fluorescent fixture.
6) Heat Lamp. I am using a standard reflector and incandescent light bulb from my local home improvement store. While there are brand name reflector and heat producing bulbs available, the benefits are not substantial enough to warrant mentioning. I have a dedicated appliance timer driving the heat lamp.
7) Great Stuff Pond & Stone Foam. An expanding and hardening foam which will be used to create a naturalistic type environment. This is not necessary, but I consider the aesthetics of a chameleon cage as vital as the functionality.
There are two key elements to keep in mind when setting up a chameleon cage. Gradients and Levels.
Gradients. A gradient is a gradual progression from one extreme to another. The gradients a chameleon requires are heat, UVB, humidity, and exposure. Gradients are critical for the chameleon to take care of its own needs within the relatively small confines of a cage. It is our responsibility to create the highs and lows necessary for the chameleon to live comfortably in that small space. Chameleons actually adjust quite well to a cage space if their needs are met. In fact, you will know when your chameleon’s needs, whether physical or psychological, are not being met when they start climbing the walls and ceiling and are trying to find a new area to sit or hunt.
Heat: A heat gradient would be the progression from the hottest point under the heat lamp to room temperature somewhere else in the cage. We will specifically place our branches and climbing surfaces so the chameleon can comfortably choose any point along that gradient depending on how much heat they desire.
UVB: Know the effective range of your UVB bulb. Usually it is 12 inches from the bulb. If the chameleon does not have a convenient branch within 12 inches then you are running the risk of the chameleon not getting enough UVB even though you have fresh UVB bulbs. Plan for a UVB basking area. It can overlap with the heat basking bulb, but I suggest not making that the only place the chameleon can get the UVB. Once again, choices are key to the chameleon regulating their own needs.
Humidity: In practice, humidity is more of a pocket rather than a progression. It is especially challenging in a screen cage because of all the ventilation.
Exposure: Heat, UVB, and humidity are pretty easy to understand. Let’s step back and take a look at the exposure gradient. Exposure is how viewable the chameleon is. It is common for this to be overlooked in cage design because we are only thinking about how we want to see our chameleon. Thus, the standard cage design today does not incorporate a place for the chameleon to get away from it all. They are constantly on display. But they, like us, also have a psychological need to be able to choose how public they are. Regulating exposure is challenging in an all screen cage where the chameleon is suspended in space with a 360 degree view. I am going to use live vining plants to accomplish this in my design. And, you’ll see how the foam will make this even more effective.
In practice you’ll find that even typical extroverts such as Veiled and Panther Chameleons will use these hidden areas at times throughout the day. Quadricornis, montium, deremensis and shyer species will spend most of their time in these protected areas. Jacksonii tend to fall somewhere in the middle. But regardless of the species, your chameleon will have it’s own personality and you want to give it the feeling of security no matter its personal level of gregariousness.
Levels. The second consideration is levels. Chameleons are horizontally perching animals. While you will find them at many orientations, they generally seem most comfortable horizontal. So we will want to create horizontal levels to their home that are connected with vertical and diagonal branches. I suggest creating at least two main levels and, even better, three. With this cage we will make an upper level which will offer the perching area for the highest heat, UVB, and exposure with the lowest humidity. The lower level towards the bottom of the cage will have the lowest heat and UVB. Both humidity and exposure are created by pockets of something instead of distance away from a certain point. So I will use the space in the middle portion of the cage to create a glen, or retreat, of sorts at the middle level. This is an area where I can take advantage of the plant cover to increase humidity and give some psychological cover.
The first thing you want to do when setting up a cage is to make a plan for how it will look. I usually put together a sketch to give me a guideline. You want to plan for the following:
Where does the heat lamp go?
What kind of watering system will I use and where does it go?
How do I handle overspray and drainage?
Where does the daylight/UVB lighting go?
In my plan I am putting the heat lamp in the back right corner and the daylight/UVB along the front. I do this so that my chameleon will be front-lit giving me a nice view. Chameleons lit from the back become silhouettes. Since this is a screen cage and I need to take mist overspray into account, I am going to install two nozzles in the front two corners and point them at the plant groupings once the plants are installed. This will keep most, if not all, of the spray inside the cage. Now that we have the outside figured out, lets go to the inside.
To start off with, we install our major cage interior elements. These can be plants, feeding stations, nest boxes, or any other element appropriate to the species you are designing for. Then we can create the climbing infrastructure around them. In this case, I have plants as major elements of my design so I am going to install my plants in the locations I have determined. I am specifically keeping the floor clear of any potted plant so that I can pull the floor in and out for easy cleaning.
Note: Do not plan on the screen wall as a suitable climbing or perching surface. Screen has a certain diameter hole and is great for only a certain size chameleon. Most adult chameleons will not be comfortable climbing a screen wall. You’ll want to provide enough branch structure that the chameleon will be able to reach anywhere they wish using branches. I recommend various diameter branches to provide a variety for the chameleon’s feet to grasp.
In this example, branching will be done using zip ties and hot glue. Zip ties are good for structural strength while hot glue holds items in place. If the branch holes of the Dragon Ledges are used, hot glue can be used to ensure that the branch stays in place and the load stays on the Ledges. Artificial vines can be used to hide the zip ties if desired.
So now that our major interior elements are installed, let’s get to the branching. First, the upper level basking area. The majority of the species of chameleon or other reptiles/amphibians will appreciate a chance to warm up in the morning. Some are sun lovers and some hide in the shadow, but the important thing is to give them a choice. That choice should not be a 100% on or 100% off so you’ll want to provide a basking branch that leads away from the basking bulb. The chameleon can regulate their own temperature by the distance they sit from the bulb.
In this cage, I have planned for the heat lamp to be in the back right corner – opposite my live plant.
When you are using the Dragon Ledges you can easily anchor the branches either by zip ties or hot glue. I am going to be using zip ties and I’ll use artificial vines to hide the ties that my foam does not.
In this design I have a horizontal branch across the top. Although this is a heat gradient branch, running it under the UVB bulb also allows maximum UVB exposure at any point along that heat gradient. This same principle is applicable in any size cage as shown below in the 36″ cage with a typical photogenic Carpet Chameleon.
For the lower level I use horizontal branches and diagonals. This layer offers varying degrees of cover, but its main purpose is to give your chameleon access to all areas of the cage. Gravid females especially will appreciate easy access to the bottom of the cage. Regardless of gender, there should always be a way for the chameleon to easily find its way back into the branches if, for whatever reason, it finds itself at the bottom of the cage. Keeping the bottom of the cage clear removes hiding spaces for feeder insects and allows for easy floor removal and cleaning.
I always have a branch within the chameleon’s reach from the floor. Screen is not an ideal climbing surface for most adult chameleons.
The middle layer would contain most of the plants and should provide cover for the chameleon. Here is where you can best create your exposure gradient. In this cage example I am using a large pothos to provide drinking surfaces, a hidden glen, a humidity pocket, and enormous aesthetic appeal. The vines will actually provide a great deal of climbing surface so, in this level, I mainly have to provide a perching branch hidden behind the vines.
Live plants are the centerpiece to any chameleon cage that desires to look natural. Live plants give attractive drinking surfaces and can be used to create humidity pockets and hidden glens. The problem, in the past, has been the weight of the pot and dirt. Here is where the Dragon Ledges come into play. The Dragon Ledges from Dragon Strand are structural elements which allow weight to be borne by the frame instead of the screen. They have been tested by hanging bricks in a screen cage so you know they will handle a substantial potted plant. They are a retrofit kit for existing screen cages. We will be using these Dragon Ledges to mount a live vining plant on the wall. This gives the chameleon drinking surfaces at any level you choose and allows hiding spaces to be created. For a typical design with Pothos (AKA Devil’s Ivy), you will want to place the plant around the three quarters height of the cage. This gives an area above the plant for a basking layer as well as space for the plant to have head room space to grow naturally. It also allows an area below the plant to create a visual hiding spot.
Once we determine the spot for our plant we must anchor it in. One trick to installing a potted plant is to get two identical pots. One you will use for all the mounting and strapping in and the other will hold the plant. This makes it very easy to plop the potted plant in when ready. Alternatively, you can just shovel the dirt and plant in when you are finished.
When mounting the pots, remember the rule of threes. Give three points of anchor. When the plants and dirt go in there will be much more weight. With only one or two anchor points the weight of the dirt will cause pivoting and the weight may rest, at least in part, on the screen. This we want to avoid. Large sticks lashed to the Dragon Ledges are a convenient way to provide other anchor points in mid-air with the same strength as the Dragon Ledges. I use a combination of zip ties, galvanized steel wire, and hot glue to get the pot in place and facing the correct way. I suggest angling your trailing vine forward to get a better effect from the vines and produce the makings of a pocket for the retreat. Other smaller plants can further enclose the retreat area and increase the overall aesthetic appeal. In this cage design I will be using the Great Stuff foam so I do not have to be as careful how my mounting hardware looks as it will be covered. The foam will harden and hold everything in place.
If you are not using foam you just have to be a little neater, but, as you can see in this example done in a smaller 36″ tall cage, this is not a problem. Once the plant is in place, the black zip ties and Dragon Ledges fade into the background and are not distracting.
There are two uses for water which you much provide. The first is drinking. Placement of plants with respect to the watering system is not an accident. You need water dripping down on the plant leaves and these leaves nearby convenient perching branches. Once the entire cage is together you may have to adjust some placements to ensure maximum use of the water coming down.
The second use of water is hygiene. Chameleons need a good rain to keep their eyes clean. This is the reason why drippers are not a full solution. If you are using a dripper to provide drinking water you will have to consider a weekly drench in the shower to allow body cleaning.
In this example, I am using an automated misting system. Droppers will allow the chameleon to drink, but will not give the chameleon the ability to clean out its eyes. “Misting” will cover both drinking and hygiene purposes.
The water that goes in the cage will come out of the cage. You need to plan on where it will end up. Unless you have another drainage tactic planned out, get yourself a drainage tray. It is designed to solve the drainage problem in a simple manner and can be used anywhere in the house. If you have not yet purchased your cage, I strongly suggest you verify that your manufacturer has a drainage tray available or else you will be stuck. Most cages come with a PVC floor that makes cleaning easy, but it also holds some water before it flows into the drainage tray. To avoid the pooling of water, drill numerous small holes in the PVC floor and you’ll facilitate quick drainage. The water will quickly drain into the tray and you can remove it using a turkey baster or wet/dry vacuum. In dry climates you can just let evaporation take over.
“Great Stuff” is a brand name of a widely available foam which is used in the home improvement sector to fill gaps in walls and such. You stick the nozzle in a hole and the foam shoots out and expands to fill the gap. There are many versions of Great Stuff and they are creamy white except for the Pond and Stone version. This version is twice as much money, but it is black and fish safe. That is worth it! If you use the standard version of Great Stuff it will look artificial unless you slather it with black silicone and moss. Your money savings just went out the window with that. It would be a good idea for you to get yourself a can of Great Stuff to do a practice run and see how it comes out. This really is something where personal experience means a great deal in making sure your first try is successful.
Use disposable gloves and old clothes when working with Great Stuff. Learn from the mistakes of your predecessors! It will stick to skin and clothes and good luck getting it out. There are solvents you can find, but it is easier to just not get yourself in that position to begin with! Suit up from the beginning. Also note that once you start a can you will not be able to use the remainder of the can because the nozzles will clog up after first use.
Great Stuff expands. This means that you can lay down a thin layer of Great Stuff, but the next day it will be a thick layer. Apply quickly and confidently. The critical key in all of this is to make sure you get foam in and around the Dragon Ledges. This is what makes this all work! Foam directly on screen will seep through in some places, but mostly will expand away from the screen. This means that the foam can be peeled away from the screen. Not good. And we don’t want the screen to be bearing the load anyways. But with the Dragon Ledges embedded in the foam you have firmly anchored the entire foam structure to the frame. It will go nowhere!
If you are foaming around mounting pots with a large amount of foam then consider strengthening the pot from the inside as the foam will place pressure on the pot. Expanding foam may misshapen the pot making it difficult to slide your plant pot in. If this happens you will have to just plant the plant directly in the mounted pot.
Another planting option with foam is to carve your planter directly out of the foam. This can be done for small accent plants. Although the surface of the Great Stuff will start to harden pretty quickly, give your Great Stuff mound a couple days to set before carving out structures. Once it is ready, get yourself a knife and carve out a hole. Make a drainage hole, place soil inside, insert plant, and you are set!
If you are covering the bottoms of your pots with foam you will have to provide a method for drainage. You will have to decide on drainage for your pots. I have used two methods with success. The first is imbedding a length of ¼” tubing and letting that be my drainage, or else I drill a hole through the pot and foam and let the water trickle out. Don’t worry about the foam. Water will not damage this Great Stuff. It is designed for fixing ponds, after all.
Your cage is done and your chameleon is happy! What now? Your regular maintenance will be keeping plants watered and trimmed. In a Breeder series cage you can mist the entire cage and the plants will get watered every day, but in the more controlled environment of a screen cage you will have to supplement your plant watering on a regular basis. Other than that, periodic trimming will ensure your plants do not become too big for the cage. You may want to include plants other than pothos. Spider plants or Schefflera are other good candidates. Explore different plants. You will find some plants do great and others get stringy due to not enough light. This is just part of finding the right combination. Take the plant out and replace with another type until you find the ones that work. If you use the dual pot method I described before this is an easy process.
In this article we created a very effective cage to house a chameleon. The steps presented can be used with any enclosure scheme. Just apply the basics to your chosen equipment and remember these two guiding principles.
1) Gradients: Heat, UVB, Humidity, and Exposure
2) Levels: Horizontal perching levels connected with diagonal and vertical climbing elements.
Consider approaching the cage from the perspective of creating a beautiful environment where the chameleon is just one element. The cage should not only be functional for the chameleon with water, food, and each one of the four golden gradients. The cage should also be a work of beauty which you enjoy whether or not the chameleon is in view.
Enjoy, and take seriously, the privilege of sharing your life with these wonderful mini tree dragons!
There has been a buzz in the chameleon community ever since a study was published in December of 2013 on the effects of socialization on baby veiled chameleons. The study was meant to show that there were behavior changes as a result of social interaction. This provides another step towards the scientific community more fully recognizing a complex social system in what have been considered “lower” vertebrates. The media reporting and simplification have been misleading in describing the practical conclusions of this test. To determine the meaning of this study for our husbandry I purchased this study and in this post I discuss what they did, what it means, and what we should do with the results. Note: This study worked with the Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus). The images in this blog post are of Panther Chameleons (Furcifer pardalis).
Introduction. In December of 2013 a study entitled “Effects of early social isolation on the behavior and performance of juvenile lizards, Chameleo calyptratus” was published by Cissy Ballen, Richard Shine, and Mats Olsson. The goal was to test whether the behavior of juvenile chameleons could be affected by interaction with their peers. The results showed that, indeed, juvenile veiled chameleon behavior was affected by social interaction with other veiled chameleons.
Setting up the Study. The researchers created two test groups from a clutch of veiled chameleon hatchlings. One part of the clutch was raised individually and one part was raised in groups of four. They tested foraging behavior and reactions to coming face to face with equivalent sized siblings at 2 months old. They found that chameleons raised in isolation had a less aggressive foraging behavior and were more likely to end up the submissive individual when presented with another chameleon. The authors went on to encourage those involved with captive husbandry to take these findings into account and to consider whether social interaction should be included in captive environments.
Foraging Test. Chameleons from the isolated group and the community group were placed alone in an area, allowed to settle in, and then measured how soon they ate an introduced cricket. Result Summary: The isolated individuals took longer to eat their cricket. The authors concluded that isolated individuals had a less developed foraging behavior.
Dominance Test. A chameleon raised individually is placed within visual range of a group raised chameleon and it is measured which one emerges dominant. Result Summary: The group raised chameleons were the winners in the dominance contest. The study noted that during the dominance display that chameleons from both test groups showed aggression towards each other, but the individual raised chameleon showed more submissive behaviors. It should be noted that during the test the researchers measured the display and ended the test if the subjects took it to the next level of physical fighting.
Foraging ability. The researchers concluded that the chameleons that showed the decreased sense of urgency in feeding had a less desirable behavior. This bias can be seen in words such as “performed less well in foraging” instead of “displayed a less aggressive feeding response”. Since the study concludes by suggesting their findings have implications on captive husbandry situations, we need to look at the benefit scale through the lens of the chameleon surviving in the captive environment. While an aggressive foraging response (quick to hunt) is critical in wild populations, it is not critical in captive individually raised individuals. In fact, it can be detrimental.
In the wild, being the first to get the food may easily be the difference between life and death. This is an especially valuable character trait when the chameleon does not know when the next meal will be available. It doesn’t matter if you are hungry or full, get those calories! Tomorrow you may get nothing.
Let’s step over to the captive environment. Food is plentiful and often available every day with the keeper wringing their hands in worry if they miss a day’s feeding. Imagine the chameleon raised from a baby with plentiful food and no competition. When will that baby eat? When it is hungry. That is the feeding response learned when in the lap of plenty. It is also the condition that breeders typically keep their breeding stock because females that are well fed and comfortable will produce the largest clutches. (This is generally accepted in the breeding community, but still anecdotal as I am not aware of a scientific article on this.) What happens when we put a chameleon that is survival programmed to eat anytime it sees something move together with plentiful food? You will get a chameleon that over eats to plan for hard times, which will never come. We see this often in Veiled Chameleons, which typically have an exceptionally strong feeding response (evolving in a hostile environment will do that to you). They can have problems with obesity because their eating “off” switch is when they are so stuffed they can’t fit any more in. Living this lifestyle every day will cause a host of health issues just as it does in humans. In this light, I would suggest that it is actually better for captive husbandry that the chameleon eating response be driven by hunger instead of by competition. The study’s use of the words “strong” feeding response would more accurately be termed “competitive” feeding response as it is bringing into play psychology beyond immediate hunger into the picture. The keeper who desires to cultivate a strong/competitive feeding response in their chameleons must ask what purpose it holds. The desire for the chameleon to eat whenever you present food means the chameleon is eating on your schedule. Once again, the chameleon is being trained to eat for a reason other than hunger. This is an undesirable goal of husbandry and it should not be labeled as a benefit.
Note: I am in no way advocating having food available at all times to a chameleon. A healthy feeding schedule allows the chameleon to get hungry between feedings. This properly allows hunger to be the motivator for eating. Too much food continuously offered creates a lazy, bored, and unhealthy chameleon.
The Bottom Line: Your captive chameleons, whether group raised or individually raised, will have an eating response more than adequate for healthy growth. I would be interested in the growth patterns seen in these test cases over the first four months of life. There are reports (and my personal experience) in the hobbyist community that individually raised chameleons grow quicker. This is logical as neither the chameleon’s food intake nor calories expended due to stress are negatively affected by competition. As far as us and our captive environments, over eating and the keeper offering too much food are of much more concern to our chameleons’ well being than a casual feeding response.
Dominance. The results of this part of the test are not surprising. Put a chameleon that has had to fight for his place in the pecking order every day in with a chameleon that has never experienced a fight and we have the equivalent of putting a boxer and a water color artist in the ring together.
Once again, the question we must ask is what benefit this behavior has in the captive environment. Does the lack of a strong dominance behavior harm the captive chameleon later in life? Are we failing to develop a behavior that allows the chameleon to more fully be what a chameleon “should” be? The answers to these questions are up for debate, but generally the answer is no. There are two cases I can think of where this might be relevant.
1) Do the skills developed with early interaction with other chameleons affect, positively or negatively, their interaction with their humans? This is a stretch, but we never know until we look to see if it exists.
2) Does early social interaction increase the effectiveness of future breeding attempts? A male must certainly be aggressive to convince the female to allow a mating. It is easy to show that chameleons raised individually are able to mate just fine (repeatable personal experience), but can even rudimentary experience in the dominance battle stack the cards further in the male’s favor? It is worth further study as to how winning or losing the dominance contest affects ability to mate in the future for both males and females. For example, I have a group raised female Panther Chameleon that is exceedingly bad tempered and will aggressively attack any male that seeks to mate with her. I wonder if she was the dominant member in her group. The study of how social interaction as juveniles molds the behaviors that affect breeding in both genders would be a welcome one.
But let’s get back to the results of this particular study. The final note I would like to make is that in every run of the dominance test, the scientists recorded the results of when one determined dominance. That should raise a red flag for us captive care takers. In each and every case of meeting another chameleon there was aggression and there was a dominant one and there was a submissive one. A winner and a loser. There was no test case where the two test subjects walked over, sat next to each other, and shared a cricket. There was always a pecking order. Pecking orders mean stress not only for the submissive ones, but also for the dominate ones who have to continually establish their position. Let the implications of that sink in the next time we say that babies can be housed together up to three months old. While the physical posturing will subside after the battle is won, the pecking order is still actively maintained on a daily basis. A pecking order means the top gets the better resources sooner and longer.
The Bottom Line: Until an advantage to developing dominance skills becomes necessary in your captive environment, don’t purposefully create the situation.
Color Pallet. There is one comment that has sparked ample attention in the community. The researchers noted that in the dominance display the group reared chameleons “also exhibited a higher chroma… and were brighter” during the aggression. This statement has been erroneously construed to say that group raised animals would show a wider, brighter pallet of colors as adults. While effects on adult coloration can be speculated, there is nothing in this study that addresses color pallet range. It merely observed what shade of green or brown was displayed in a 2 month old chameleon in its first show down. It is just as valid of a theory that the inexperienced chameleon was shell shocked from having this gaping, hissing, aggressive thing in front of it and started scared. I wonder what would happen if you put the loser in with a smaller chameleon so it could be the victor. Would the bright colors come through? Further study must be made before we can say that color pallet is learned from others or that competition as juveniles has any affect on color range as adults. Whether there is a connection or not, this study offered no evidence of it or even established that there is a group of adult chameleons out there that do not know, or cannot access, the full range of their color pallet.
While we are making our wish list of studies, let’s find out if chameleons control the color by their brain or if the brain controls the emotions and the body produces color to match according to biological make up. One would be affected by experiences and learning while the other not. As far as color pallet goes, there are some important pieces to this puzzle we need before we can see the true picture and come to conclusions.
The Bottom Line: As with each of these points, much of the confusion comes from how the study was portrayed in the media reports. If you are interested in how adult color pallet may be affected by experiences as a juvenile consider setting up a test of your own to get the conversation started based on reproducible data.
I believe the value of this study was that it showed that chameleons have a more complex behavior than they were previously given credit. This is important because being aware of the possibility of higher function opens to door for us to exploring those characteristics. This study provides part of the foundation to prove these behavior developments exist. Even if we, as long time chameleon keepers, say these test results were obvious and unsurprising, it is critically important that these concepts be proven in a scientific manner, such as this study, to lay an objective and repeatable foundation to build our knowledge upon.
In reading this study, remember that the value of the tested behaviors to the captive environment was not addressed. The researchers in this study created stress situations and measured the response. An urgency around food or the display contest are not (or should not be) relevant in a proper captive husbandry condition.
The measurement scale in this study appears to be geared towards life in the wild. The calmer approach to feeding was described as “performed less well”. It was then referred to as an impairment. Performing better in dominance display was considered a “benefit”. The researchers seemed to have maintained the assumption that being prepared for a life of competition and conflict is a benefit. In the wild there is little doubt this is the case. Unless the animal in question is going to live a life of competition and potential conflict in captivity we must, once again, view the results as to how they are relevant to captive conditions. Private keepers have no reason to induce stress reactions (such as food competition and dominance play) and to do so with no other end benefit would be poor husbandry. The ability to for a chameleon to develop a response is no evidence that the response is beneficial or necessary in a captive environment.
Our captive kept chameleons face a different life than their wild cousins.
Regardless of how we try to replicate a chameleon’s environment we are still keeping them in an environment foreign to where they have evolved. The captive world is a world entirely different. This is said without judgment towards positive or negative. For the restriction of movement we give a parasite free life. For having to live with big monkeys, the big monkeys bring them food on a regular basis. For every negative we strive to substitute more positives in an attempt to create a net positive. Regardless of how we stack the scale towards the positive, though, it is still a much different place than the wild and requires different life skills. In other words, captivity changes what is necessary and important in chameleon behavior. It means that some behaviors crucial to survival as a wild chameleon are no longer necessary as a captive chameleon pet. Where before an important skill was to eat whenever they could, now the problem is avoiding obesity. Where before they were on guard to defend their territory against invading chameleons, now they must develop social skills with humans trying to handle them.
Civilization has done the exact same thing to us humans. I perform less well in “foraging” tasks than a farmer. I personally have no idea how to take a live chicken and create dinner. My foraging capabilities as a human are impaired. Obviously, a change in my living conditions from my early ancestors has made the ability to forage much less important. MFI process and the four P’s of marketing are infinitely more important to my present living conditions. Going back to my roots and learning how to prepare a chicken would not be a benefit. So too does the value of the chameleon’s behaviors shift with the change in living conditions
This study does not make any specific recommendation as to how the results should be used to modify captive husbandry beyond suggesting that a higher cognitive capability be taken into account. The study merely shows that there are behavior modifications done by social interaction. The aggression the members of this study showed each other should actually be a warning against raising chameleons up together. If a behavior necessitating social interaction is identified then a method safer than cohabitation can be used. Closely monitored “play dates” and/or sessions with a mirror can exercise dominance play without danger of physical damage.
The dangers of cohabitation are well known. Slower growth rates, physical damage, and nipped tails from bites are common. One only need go to the forums and reptile shows to see captive bred “B” grade animals. This is from raising babies up together. There is no shortage of stories of one animal in a cohabitation situation that slowly withers away over a long period of time. These damaging and deadly situations must be addressed in some manner before any change in husbandry to a more social situation is advised.
I have yet to see harm to a chameleon raised without chameleon social interaction, but I have seen plenty of harm to chameleons raised or housed in pairs or groups.
To conclude, this is not to say that chameleons cannot survive or even thrive with other chameleons around. There are methods of husbandry which allow cohabitation that fall within many chameleons’ adaptive range, but they are only successful with one critical ingredient. – freedom to escape. If cohabitation is of interest, the topic is explored, with its dangers and that one critical ingredient for success, in the blog post “Keeping Chameleons Together”.
To get a copy of the study in this article go to this link:
(This study requires a $35 payment for the study)
To view media coverage: