I take you along with me as I create an egg laying bin for a rare species of chameleon, Trioceros cristatus. By providing multiple egg laying topographies we can allow her to choose what feels best to her chameleon mind.
The following links were discussed in today's podcast episode:
Transcript (more or less)
It has been an exciting week at the Chameleon Academy! I keep a rare species of chameleon from the Cameroon called the crested chameleon, or, more accurately, Trioceros cristatus. We have so few in the hands of experienced breeders that any success is celebrated in this very small community. It is a shy species, but what an impressive one it is. The female is bright velvety green and the males are a rich chestnut color with a blue crown above their head. Both sexes have a sail fin along their back. They are a little different as far as husbandry than your standard forest edge chameleon as cristatus happily spend their time closer to the ground and hiding away from bright lights. They are a lowland species so, despite their visual similarities to chameleons we equate with high altitude, cristatus are not interested in deep nighttime drops. The other interesting feature is their tail is shorter than most of the commonly kept chameleons. Cristatus is one of those species that is a good husbandry experience expander. It is similar enough in husbandry to the common species that it should be no problem for anyone to try their hand at it, but just different enough to be a new experience. Hmmm, I think I have let my affection for cristatus lead me on a bit of a tangent, but no matter, it helps you understand why I was so excited to see her pacing her cage in an obvious desire to find an egg laying site. Obviously, this was not a surprise. I had introduced a male to her a little over nine weeks ago, observed a mating, and had watched her grow with eggs as I made sure everything I fed to her was gutloaded and properly supplemented. So, yes, this was an anticipated event!
And so I wanted to take you along with me during the process of egg laying and then I am going to go into detail on making an egg laying bin. And this is perfect time because cristatus, and especially this cristatus, are a little more picky than a veiled or panther so I am going to share with you the egg laying bin strategy that has worked very well for me to coax some of the more rare species to lay. For another perspective of creating an egg laying from someone who spends more time with rare species than even me, go back four years ago and check out episode 76 with Carl Cattau. That is a great overview of the subject. The added value that this episode brings is that this one will be more of me bringing you along with me step by step as I carry out the strategy. And, I add in some insight I have gained over the four years since doing that episode.
One thing to start with is the whole trend towards using bio-active substrates, or even just soil substrates in a female chameleon’s cage. There are a number of reasons to do this that have nothing to do with egg laying. And there still is no necessity to have a soil floor with a chameleon, but I bring it up because if you have a soil floor then the immediate question is whether you need an egg laying bin. And the answer is no, if you maintain the soil in a way that allows it to be a good digging soil. This requires good drainage. Female chameleons will not lay their eggs in soaked soil so your substrate drainage needs to be dialed in with moisture input. For this episode, I am going to use the scenario where there is just the plain plastic floor that cages usually come with, but the principles and ideas are universal so you should be able to apply them easily to your particular situation.
First, it is important to recognize the signs that your female is ready to lay. This can be pretty straight forward for Veiled or panther chameleons. 30 days after mating you can expect an egg laying. This timing gets a little murky for other species that have the ability to hold eggs. I have had quadricornis and cristatus do this to me where gestation , the time period between mating and egg laying, is not necessarily consistent. The other very relevant case is with female veiled chameleons that often develop unfertilized clutches so you do not have a mating event to clock from. So, there are visual cues. As eggs develop you will usually see a female grow in girth. Sometimes you can see and/or feel egg shapes in the overly rotund torso. Other times, they can have stealth clutches where you are surprised they were carrying anything. Once again, that was with quadricornis in my personal experience. Veiled, panther, and cristatus have always been quite obvious to me. And you will notice the gravid shape growing and growing over the weeks. During this time the female will be eating as much as she can. And you should give it to her. I know you hear a lot about controlling feeder insect number and that is an important skill. But the major problem we are trying to solve is obesity in chameleons which overdrives the female’s body into producing more eggs than would be normal. This is often actually life threatening to the female so it is worth reading up on. Of course, I have some podcast episodes on this which I will link to in the show notes. But once her body has made the decision as to how many eggs to produce, it is healthy to give her what ever food she wants. She is now eating for 30 if you are lucky. If you grew up your female veiled in very warm temperatures and well fed then her body will take advantage of that and could give you 60 to 100 or so eggs. I know that sounds amazing, but the people who have tried to raise up a clutch of veiled chameleon hatchlings of 40 or more can attest to it not being the party the brochure promises. But once the number of eggs decision has been made it is time to give her what her body wants to develop all those babies. And scarf down the food she will do…that is until the eggs get sizeable enough that there is very little room left inside her body for food. And this isn‘t joking. Near the end of gestation there just isn’t room for food. And so going off of eating is a common behavior for females that will lay within the week. Not always, of course. Every female is different. So I am just presenting to you possibilities that often work. Jackson’s chameleons are notorious for this. They are livebearers, but when we get newcomers complaining that their female jackson’s chameleon was such a good eater until earlier this week we go into full baby care education mode.
The real indication is the change in behavior. Your female will usually like to warm up and be near the top of the cage or in her favorite resting spot in the leaves. You will then start to notice that she is hanging out near the bottom of the cage. And she is getting restless. And this is what happen with my lady cristatus. Cristatus likes to warm up and then hide in the foliage like any chameleon, but they are heavily on the hide-out side. I may see my female cristatus basking once a week and the rest of the time she is slinking about the underbrush of the cage. And this is a characteristic of cristatus. That is just what they do. All well and good, until early this week she started pacing the branches near the bottom of the cage and climbing the walls. So I knew the time was here.
Now, I also knew she was a picky egg layer. I know this because I already went through this with her before. The last clutch I got from her took the entire week of her digging test holes and then finally laying. I was using a simple container with digging soil, but didn’t get fancy. This time I decided to get fancy just in case. And, yes, I will explain what I mean by that.
To lay eggs, chameleons are looking for soil which they can dig through, has the right moisture content, and has a hard surface to lay against. That hard surface could be anything in the Earth including just compacted earth a couple inches down from the surface. They have also been known to target root balls of plants. Honestly, I am not sure if they really are looking for roots or roots just happen to be in the area. Because I used to run a large scale breeding facility where egg laying females would be released into large outdoor enclosures over 20’ x 20’ floor space. There was vegetation and open area. There were areas with what I thought was perfect egg laying sand/soil mixture and there were areas that I didn’t bother to replace soil. And it bothered me that I couldn’t get them to lay in the perfect egg laying areas. They kept finding untouched area where they could only dig down a couple inches. And it was up against hard surfaces. And I am embarrassed to say that I did not learn my lessons right then and there with the most perfect communication I could have been given by what the chameleons chose when presented with wild options. I went on after that to do the ill advised things that many people are still doing like giving deep soil container for veiled chameleons to tunnel through. And, yes, I had tunnel collapses and was wondering how it made sense for eggs to be laid so deep. How would the babies dig out this far and what possible purpose would being 12 inches below the surface hold? It wasn’t until I was doing the interview with Carl four years ago for episode 76 that everything came rushing in and my observations all started to make sense and I figured out that I was forcing my ideas of what chameleons should need onto them and not listening to them. Since then I have slowly given my chameleons less and less soil depth to experiment. I started with 8” and have worked my way to 6” and now am trying 4”. Of course, species makes a difference. My Parson’s female appreciated more depth than my panther female, but not as much as I had thought. The pattern is, once I took away my interpretation of what should be, is that my chameleons were looking for a hard surface about half their body length deep to lay eggs against. So I came up with a laying bin design that I am using with all my females. It is working very well. And that is the design I am going to go over in this episode. But I can guarantee you that four years from now I will be doing this episode again and sharing with you the improved design.
And I hope you have become comfortable with that by now. This podcast was never meant to be the presentation of the end all be all information. It has always been a quest to learn more and figure things out. I know it is fashionable on social media to be an expert. That is not my gig. I will present what I know and share the confidence level associated with that, but you listeners to this podcast are on the journey of exploration with me. And I hope you value that we are doing this together and you are pretty much figuring all this out with me. My forty years of experience has served me well not to know the secrets of the universe, but to point my efforts in a useful direction.
So, let’s address how that approach is different from the standard, don’t fix what isn’t broken. When people find a way that works there isn’t much motivation to change it unless there is a demonstrated benefit. Example, if you are a panther chameleon breeder and giving your female panthers 8” of moist sand to lay in results in the successful laying of a clutch of eggs, why change? Doing the same thing for ten years achieves the goal. And this is why it is tricky when people say they have been doing chameleons for ten or twenty years. Sounds Impressive? Well, it is if they have been using that time to refine and challenge everything they are doing. It is less impressive if they are doing the same thing now as when they started. Honestly, I keep throwing around the 40 year experience stat specifically to stop people trying to use their 10 or 20 years as a resume point to prove they are right to say their way is the best way. No, my 40 years is only as valuable as how far I have come. Not in how much I have done the same thing over and over. So if your female panther is working twice as hard as she needs to to lay eggs you are not going to measure that by successful clutches laid. The value for challenging that is going to come from this inner drive to make life better for the chameleon. That is what I push for here. I agree that any change should have a measurable effect, but I argue that getting the same results with less physical outlay from the female chameleon is a measurable result. Anyway, the reason why I am going through all this philosophy is because the chameleon community is mostly stuck in the 8” or more depth for egg laying containers. So expect push back if you stroll into those digital halls with what I am sharing on this podcast. That goes for many topics. But, if you are a long time listener you already know we are constantly pushing the boundaries here! So, let’s get on with the laybin.
First, the container. I like using a clear sweater box about 16” x 12” and 7” high. But, Bill, if it is clear, won’t that freak her out when she digs to the side and sees light coming through? Yes, and that is a great reason for using solid side containers. But, I kind of want to be able to see where the eggs may be so I know where to dig. I have had some females that are so good at hiding their tracks that the only sign that I have that something happened is a bunch of dirt on the top of her head as she looks at me from her branch pretending she didn’t just lay a clutch of eggs. And carefully excavating the entire bin to ensure that eggs aren’t damaged once you find them is monotonous work. I will say that I have never actually broken an egg doing this, but I don’t want that first time. So what I do is I get a clear sided container and I duct tape a few layers of black trash bag around the sides so they block out all the light. Once she has laid I can easily rip off the plastic and see where the eggs are. Well, as long as she laid them against the sides or bottom. This isn’t 100% so other measures will be used.
I make sure there is plenty of drainage in the laybin. I do not want water to pool at the bottom of the laybin. Remember the female will likely dig to the bottom. If she finds a water layer then she won’t lay there. This is the draw back of having your bioactive or substrate floor in your cage unless you have external drainage. Having a drainage layer like the dart frog people do at the bottom of the soil layer may cause complications when it comes to egg laying. It really all depends on your water management. For my temporary laybin I drill a number of hole in the bottom to make sure no water will pool when the misting system kicks on.
The under ground topography
On the inside of the bin I am going to add some features. I want to be clear that most breeders are highly successful without going through the twists I am about to present. But they can do that when they specialize in one species. This is why egg laying bins from breeders are so simple. They have figured out the essence of what the species is looking for and have optimized their husbandry. My approach here, though, is how to approach an unknown species and giving enough options that it will result in her finding what she is looking for a successful egg laying. And this works for you while you are starting out with a species that is new to you. After a few successful egg layings you can start removing the features that are not necessary. But, for me, with a picky rare species, I am going all out!
So I know they are looking for a hard surface to lay against and I want to give them all the options possible in the small space at the bottom of their cage. I am planning on offering a soil depth of between 4 and 6 inches. This depth works for most species. On one side of the laybin I am going to put 2” of smooth rocks on the bottom so I get only four inches of soil depth. In the middle of the laybin I will have 6” of soil depth and on the other side I am putting in a live plant with the roots. This way she has a number of options. You are absolutely correct that she will have no idea where to dig to find the different underground topographies, but I wanted to make it so if she didn’t find what she wanted after digging the first hole that the second hole she dug would provide to her a different topography. And then a third hole would provide yet another choice. What I did last time was just digging soil in a basin. Every time she dug a new hole she found exactly what she found the time before. Eventually, she dug a hole that was tolerable and laid the eggs. So, I guess that was successful egg laying. But I would rather she be happier about her choices and lay sooner than when the eggs won’t stay in any longer. This is how you get them laying on the top of the dirt or just pushing them out any old place in the cage. All of us breeders encounter this one time or another – especially with the rarer species. We just try very hard not to. Not the best husbandry experience.
So, how about the soil itself? I like to ues a 50% soil and 50% sand mixture that I throw together in rough measurements and mix together. More soil or more sand doesn’t matter. Just as long as the hole will hold its shape and not collapse in on the chameleon. But, remember, we want a hole. We do not want tunneling. I have to say this because there is still a number of people that embrace the chameleon having a deep enough bin that the chameleon can tunnel. This is the husbandry trap of thinking that what you observe them doing is an indication that they need to do it. In reality, the behavior you see may be them confused and just trying to make sense of the strange conditions they find themselves under. Tunneling is when the female just can’t make sense of things and just keeps digging until she runs into something that triggers the “this is good” signal in her lizard brain. Stop it before it gets that far
At this point, I have put my stones in on one side and the plant in on the other side. I then start mixing my soil in the middle and fill in the rock side - and then the plant side and then the middle. Once I have the laying bin full I then carefully spread a thin layer of soil across the top until it is a uniform dark coat. I then sprinkle just enough sand that I create a thin layer of light colored sand on top of the dark soil. What this does is allows me to see where the soil was disturbed so I know where to start digging. They sometimes do such a good job hiding their dig site that it often is impossible to tell where they laid the eggs.
Okay, so I made my laying bin and put it at the bottom of the cage. There are sticks leading down to the bin to make it easy to access. To help me know where she laid, I have clear sides to view the lower layers. These, of course, are wrapped by a few layers of black trash bags to block out light during the egg laying process. The surface is light and dark coded so any disturbance will be obvious. And then, I got myself a WiFi security camera that I will set up to monitor the egg laying site. So I am ready for whatever happens. I just have to hope it all goes well! So I place the laying bin in the cage and went to go get the security camera to set up. And, well, when I got back she was already in the bin. Yikes. I guess that didn’t take long. I quickly set-up the camera, but I had to do it outside the cage so I didn’t bother her which gave me a less than academy award winning clarity of picture. Oh well.
Now a word on cameras and privacy. The biggest problem with chameleons not using your perfect laybin is privacy. They are in an incredibly vulnerable position on the ground digging a hole. A laybin in an open area situated where you and the three family dogs can watch the action has a low probability of success. When I have a laybin in a cage I put visual barriers all around and leave only a peephole where I can keep track of things without disturbing her. My new security camera solved this and was wonderful. I didn’t even need a peep hole. I watched the whole thing on my phone with no disturbance. And, of course, now I am obsessed with this and will be setting one up in all my cages so I can watch my chameleons do nothing all day.
Anyways, the camera picture had something to be desired. At least I was able to view where she was digging. And dig she did. She was ready and dug one hole in the middle, laid her eggs, and covered them up. Success! I gave the hard working mother a long misting session and a buffet of crickets, roaches, and superworms.
So, post game analysis.
First of all, camera was a great idea. I watched it happen in real time. I knew exactly where she laid. Next time I’ll get it inside the cage with better lighting.
The sand and soil disturbance method was also effective. Although, in this case, there wasn’t much subtlety. By time she was done with it, the bin looked like a land mine had gone off. She dug a huge hole and only filled it back in half way. So, there wasn’t much challenge in knowing where to dig. There was none of that stealth I talked about with this dig.
So, how about the clear sides? This didn’t work for me this time. It has worked perfectly every time before and showed me exactly where the eggs were. This time, however, none of the eggs were touching the sides or bottom or even on the rock layer. So, so much for giving me a text book success story for my podcast and video! I feel I need to do this again and prove the worth of this genius method!
She dug in the middle area where it was six inches deep. She really made a mess of the hole so I don’t know what that was about. Was she unhappy with it but happy enough to not abandon it? Could I have done something better? I do not know. But she did deposit the eggs about four inches down counting from the top of the soil to the top of the egg ball. But let’s be careful how we interpret that data. Does that mean it was a perfect laying site or that she was simply able to make due? This can only be answered by providing different test sites across the years and putting together patterns. This is why we chameleon people need patience!
So, let’s recap. I went the extra mile on this one. Is that necessary? The answer is that it usually is not. My last Veiled chameleon laid her eggs in a wheelbarrow with plain dirt in it. I just picked up her cage and put it on top of the dirt. She laid and we all went on with our lives. I did a fancy laybin for my female panther chameleon and she, for the third time, thumbed her nose at my fancy offering and laid, instead, in her pothos pot. Or her polka dot plant pot. Or, literally, anywhere other than my perfectly made laybin. My Parson’s female laid her eggs in the dirt floor of her outdoor cage. No special soil mixture, no root ball, just against the planter box wall. So, no, it really isn’t that complicated. Once again, what I presented here was a laying bin configuration that covers a variety of options and puts them into one bin. You may go your entire panther chameleon breeding life without having a single female that protests against being asked to deposit her eggs on top of a bed of vermiculite, in nice neat rows one inch apart. But if you run into a species you are not familiar with then it is good to have options to try with them. This is exactly what I did to get my deremensis to lay for me for first time. But, boy was deremensis a puzzle for me. We were providing laybins with different soil compositions, we were starting holes for them,…sometimes we try everything. Eventually, my deremensis just laid in the plain dirt and I never figured out what the fuss was about. But it is good to have these options available to us so we are ready if we need them. And if Tanzania ever opens up and someone has a gravid Matschiei I want you to have the greatest possibility for success because I would love to work with that species. See…I do have hidden motivations for building the best possible educated chameleon community. Better availability of captive hatched rare species for me!
By the way, when I talked about the female panther chameleon laying eggs in nice neat rows one inch apart I am making a joke about the debate between leaving them in a ball like they were laid and separating them out in rows. I have tried both methods and haven’t yet seen a difference in end result. Having eggs clumped together tends to get them all hatching at the same time, but I haven’t figured out what benefit there is to that in captivity. I’ll keep experimenting with it. It is the more natural way to have them in a ball, but I am unaware of any problem that needs solving in the way chameleons hatch out. But this is purely a personal judgement. If you incubate them in a ball more power to you. If you incubate them in rows, two thumbs up. Peace everyone. As always, I’ll keep you in the loop as I explore this. Feel free to enlighten me to your truth.
So there you have a simple laybin project. All of the parts can be found at your standard home improvement center. And, of course, a simple container 4 to 6” deep of soil or sand/soil mixture will work as well in most cases. But it would be a very short podcast if I just said that! Nope, the underlying lesson here is not just making a successful egg laying bin. It is attacking a problem creatively. It is the skill of see that there is an issue with something like egg laying and then putting together a number of options that let the female teach us what she needs. And it is up to us to put aside what we think we know and accept what we are taught. Compare that to the many other responses to egg laying for the species and we start to put together a picture that can be replicated with other keepers. And, finally, care sheets can be put together that will actually work in 90% of the cases. This is how we build community knowledge.
In the end, I was able to recover twenty beautifully calcified eggs which will go into the incubator right next to the 21 she laid earlier this year. Yes, she has been busy. Let’s hope all goes well and there are baby cristatus greeting me by the end of the year. We have a small Facebook group specializing in this species called the Trioceros cristatus community if you are interested in getting involved with this chameleon species.
Wrapping it up
It has been an event filled week at the Chameleon Academy. If you go to the home page of the chameleoncademy.com website you can find a link to our apparel storefront where you can get shirts, hoodies, and coffee mugs with the rainbow panther chameleon academy logo. It is very cool seeing people starting to show them off on social media. Please tag me if you do!
And I am starting in on a project I have wanted to do for years, but now it is time. I am going to be documenting each step of a panther chameleon breeding lifecycle. I’ll be recording it in written word, Youtube video , and podcast audio. Each media will have a different perspective on the topic and will complement each other. The first step is to select the locale and genetics to be used and I am deep into that. If you would like to follow along, go and subscribe on the Chameleon Academy YouTube channel. The first video, Selecting your Panther Chameleon, is out. That was the companion video to last week’s podcast episode. I am very excited to do this project and I think it will be a lot of fun to bring you along.
I think what this will accomplish is highlight the immense amount of experience that going through an entire breeding life cycle of a species entails. This is why you can’t be an expert by just memorizing the care sheets and what people are saying on social media. You need the experience to back it up. And, if you stick with me for another two years, you can be virtually by my side as I start at ground zero and build up a personal panther chameleon breeding project. A Story of Panther Chameleons will follow my obtaining one or two pairs of panther chameleon juveniles, sharing basic panther chameleon husbandry and growth milestones as they grow up, documenting the breeding process once they mature, and then we will spend the incubation time discussing baby care and the pros and cons of being an official breeder. The project will end when the babies hatch out grow to the age I got the parents at in the next couple months.
I have a playlist set up on my YouTube channel and a special section on the website to document each chapter. On YouTube you can subscribe and if you want notifications of when the new videos are up you hit the little bell icon by the subscribed button. Of course, there are lots of chameleon related videos there as well outside this project.
Thank you for joining me here. I look forward to these new projects and am grateful that I can make these community projects. It is simply more enjoyable that way. And now, it is time for me to get to work on finishing the video companion on YouTube for this laybin episode so you can see what I did. I love the stuff I keep busy with! Take care, and I will be back next week!