Summary: Explore the relationship between chameleons and stress. We go over the three stress zones: Comfort, Tolerance, and Intolerance and then delve into different kinds of stress including stress spikes, internal physical stress, external physical stress, and emotional stress. Most importantly, we go over the communication that chameleons give you that we often miss because we don't speak chameleon! Well, then, here is a lesson in chameleon speak! By learning the signs of stress you are well versed to eliminate it as much as is possible from your chameleon's life! .
You can listen here:
Stress is a subject that is well studied and has many parallels. A great place to start learning more is the American Institute of Stress. This page has a great summary: http://www.stress.org/what-is-stress/
A pretty technical paper discussing how there may be a link to eradicating parasites in our bodies and the rise of certain diseases. Does the failure to acquire helminthic parasites predispose to Crohn’s disease?
The caging system described in the episode which allows a breeding pair of panther chameleons and 24 babies to all be housed individually and visually isolated from each other in 8 feet of wall space is the Dragon Strand Breeder Cage System. Click the picture to be linked to the website.
Transcript (more or less)
Transcript (More or Less)
Note: The Chameleon Breeder Podcast changed the name to The Chameleon Academy Podcast in 2020. This ties together the outreach efforts that grew from this original podcast. Although the audio mentions the Chameleon Breeder name, the links here in the show notes have been updated.
Happy New Years 2016, Chameleon Wranglers! Welcome back to our weekly chameleon fireside.
Today we will talk about stress and chameleons. Stress is a major topic as we are constantly told not to stress our chameleons. But what does that really mean? It is important that we know what we are talking about!
Stress and the effects of stress are well studied. So if you want to continue to dive into understanding stress there are other sources. How many? I would say there are a plethora of sources. You can start at the American Institute of Stress and see how what I am saying for chameleons fits on the human function curve. We and chameleons may be different creatures, but we are made from the same stuff. The term “stress” as we use it today was coined by Hans Selye in 1936. The simplest definition was “The rate of wear and tear on the body”. This is of importance to us because the health of our chameleon is weakened with stress. When health is compromised infections and sickness can more easily set in and, if left to continue, the chameleon’s life is shortened to an untimely death. My hope in talking about this is to promote vigorous longevity as the standard by which we keep our chameleons. The detrimental effects of stress are slow and generally long term in nature so are often overlooked. Issues with the chameleon’s health are written off to bad luck or just “what happens”. I would like us to do better than that and do the best we can to understand chameleons for what they are. That is really the only way we can provide the best husbandry possible.
Before we get into this I want to make it clear that I am not trying to encompass the entire subject of stress here. I am focusing on understanding the stress levels that we need to manage for the best possible chameleon captive husbandry. There are actually good stresses out there. But I am going to focus on the stresses we need to worry about.
To set the groundwork for this discussion I’d like to create certain zones. These zones come from basic study of stress in humans. You can find all sorts of charts and I’ll include a good link in the show notes. I am adapting those concepts to chameleon husbandry. So my explanations here may be unique in their approach, but the concepts are hardly original.
The first zone is the comfort zone. This is the range of conditions that the chameleon would consider ideal. It would be a zone where all environmental parameters are perfect for the species, there would be no predators, no parasites, no competition for food, water, or great basking spots. Food coming by is of high nutritional content and possesses no biting parts or defense spikes. It is chameleon paradise.
This is just a concept. And it is probably good that we will never be able to reach our idea of chameleon “perfection”, because we may not actually know what is ideal. For example, everyone wants to get rid of parasites. And I can’t give any evidence that we should change that! But parasites and chameleons have evolved together and may be tied closer than we realize. In humans, there are theories that our immune system response to parasites also is a key to combating diseases such as Crohn’s disease. Perhaps our effective advanced world hygiene has robbed us of certain parasites which we depended on in some ways. It is certain that there are relationships like this throughout the animal kingdom. I feel comfortable saying that we should get rid of parasites with the information we have now, but the more we learn the more we realize that there is no black and white in this world. Except that chameleons are awesome. The point is that we will be continually refining what the comfort zone actually is. But we have a pretty good idea of the basics and our job as chameleon keepers is to construct our husbandry to be as close to that chameleon comfort model as possible. Or, and this is vitally important, be consciously aware when we are choosing to deviate from that comfort model.
The next zone is the tolerance zone. This is the zone that encompasses a normal healthy life. In humans, our tolerance zone is being hot and rolling down the window, getting the flu and whining about it for a week, or cramming for finals or that important presentation and not getting enough sleep. In all these cases, our bodies are presented with a challenge to the comfort zone and we take steps to bring us as close back as possible. We adjust the air conditioning. We take some medicine and rest. We sleep in over the weekend to get our strength back. With a chameleon they move themselves under the basking lamp, they get a dose of panacur to knock out the pinworms, and they get put back in their cages to wonder why this hairless ape is so amused by playing treadmill with them. The tolerance zone consists of stress spikes which are correctable and go away.
The next zone is the intolerance zone. This is where the chameleon’s ability to absorb the stress conditions is exhausted. When the temperature is so hot that gaping, turning white, and hiding in the lowest, darkest place does not correct it the chameleon enters into heat stress and physical damage occurs to the point where death is possible and, if the stressor is not removed, inevitable. When there is a high parasite load and the chameleon struggles to get enough nutrients its body gets weaker and weaker to the point where it starts to fail. The host/parasite relationship is off balance and both will now die. The delineation between the tolerance zone and the intolerance zone is not set and clear. A certain set of conditions can be firmly in the tolerance zone for one day, but as it continues, they move into the intolerance zone. The slow slide of tolerance to intolerance is the hallmark of constant stress. It has also been termed “low grade stress” or chronic stress. This is why you can have people talk about how they can keep chameleons living together or feed them only mealworms. The stress of competition and malnutrition builds up over time. The longer it is in effect the fewer the number of chameleons that will be able to handle it.
I need to mention that there is always that one individual chameleon that hangs out with other chameleons, will eat only mealworms, and doesn’t care about your UVB light. He drinks from a water bowl and, as a hobby, collects different species of hookworms. He is the chameleon equivalent of the fast food eating, TV watching, chain-smoking, whiskey drinking uncle of yours that outlives your fitness coach cousin. Despite these anecdotal data points we will be discouraging mealworm-only diets and whiskey binges for both your chameleon and you.
So now that we have our zones laid out let’s work on understanding types of stresses. And then we can put the pieces together for a whole picture.
Stress is the body’s way of driving you to change your situation. Chemicals are released in your body telling you that there is a condition, whether physical or emotional, that is not optimal for your life and it is requesting a change. There are four kinds of stress that I feel are relevant to chameleon keepers. And understand these are designations created by me to help explain how we should address this topic. Your vet will probably just call it stress. But to dive into understanding your chameleon and coming out of this with some actionable items in our husbandry we need to break it up and study the different aspects of it. This is important for us because handling can stress your chameleon, but it is not the stress that will be eventually bringing you into the vet. So that is why we as keepers need to have a deeper understanding of what we are doing and how it affects our chameleon.
The four stress conditions I would like to talk about are
1) Stress spikes
2) Internal physical stress
3) External physical stress
4) Emotional stress
Stress spikes are what keeps us safe in a world that wants to eat us. We would feel a rush of stress as the saber-tooth cat leapt towards us with mal intention. Well, at least our ancestors would have. Today we are more likely to feel stress spikes when we are late for work and can’t find our keys or we get cut off on the freeway. These are temporary flare ups of stress which go away relatively quickly. In the chameleon world, stress spikes come from things like taking a chameleon out of his cage when he doesn’t want to go, the dog running by his cage, a hawk flying overhead, the misting system suddenly turning on, the lights suddenly turning off,…and it goes on and on. Of course, fearing for their life has a much higher stress level result than the quick surprise of a mister going on. Normal life is filled with stress spikes of various degrees from annoyance to full on fight or flight. A chameleon is designed to withstand these stress spikes. Because, in fact, the stress spikes are the body’s way of ensuring their (and every other living creature’s) survival. Discomfort at the temperature is what drives a chameleon to seek out the heat lamp. There was a minor stress bump and the chameleon took action to bring his body back into comfort. A hawk flying by at low level will generate a huge stress spike that will shoot adrenaline through his body and you’ll get the immediate swiveling to get behind the branch or even a drop to the ground. In both of these cases the stress appeared, was dealt with and the chameleon goes on with life.
Occasional stress spikes are not what you need to worry about. If you need to medicate your chameleon, please do not refrain from doing so because you are worried about the stress of holding him or opening his mouth. Yes, you will be stressing your chameleon by holding him and sticking a syringe into his mouth, but it is for a greater benefit and that stress will fade quickly. This is the main key between stress spikes and low-grade, constant stress. The chameleon can do something about the stress spike to correct it. If the chameleon cannot be relieved of the stress – if there is no escape - then it is no longer a spike and becomes a constant stress. Constant, chronic stress is what will shorten your chameleon’s life. We will spend most of the podcast speaking about this stress.
Intro to Chronic Stress types
The next three types of stress are the ones you really need to look out for. They are the ones that exert a constant stress on the chameleon’s body. These are the stress points that the chameleon cannot get away from. This means it is chronic. A chameleon under constant stress will have a compromised immune system. A stressed immune system opens the chameleon up to illness. It is the exact same thing that is happening when we get sick from being cold for too long. It isn’t the cold that is making us sick. It is the body spending so much energy trying to keep us warm and failing that weakens us. The bacteria and viruses that are always around us, but have been fought off, find that this body is weakened and they are able to take hold. And, just like us, sometimes that infection is a minor annoyance which the chameleon fights off when conditions get better. But in the case of a constant stress, the problem gets worse and the result is life threatening. As serious as these are, understand that the seriousness comes from the chronic nature. The silver lining of this is that this is not a cause for immediate panic. You do the best you can to reduce these stresses and watch for behavior that suggests that there is something you didn’t catch. You then put on your detective’s hat and figure it out. Chameleons are actually quite hardy and if you know the signs of stress, you have time to correct the condition. The reason why many people get in trouble is that they don’t know the signs and chameleon language so they do not recognize there is a problem until it is too late. We will go over the signs that there is trouble brewing and with this knowledge you’ll be able to recognize problems while they are still able to be reversed.
We will start with internal physical stress. This is usually in the form of parasites. This can also be bacterial or viral infection, broken bones, strained joints, or complications in egg development for example. Malnutrition (or obesity for that matter) also contributes to internal stress. But how you detect internal physical stress? Broken bones and any other kind of structural damage is pretty easy to determine as the chameleon will stay away from using the limb or body part and will move strangely or not at all. Discoloration of the skin is a dead give away of something going on beneath the surface. Fecal exams can discern whether there is a parasite load that must be dealt with. Studying the poop can give you an insight to malnutrition or dehydration. A good healthy poop is moist and tightly packed. A dry poop is a warning sign that the chameleon is not getting enough water. Smaller poops indicate not as much food intake. All of this is a prime concern to us as any of these stresses maintained over time will eventually cost your chameleon its health or life. The major sign that there is an internal stress that has moved into the intolerance zone is when the eye turrets start sinking in or your chameleon closes its eyes during the day. This is an immediate get-to-the-vet condition. But please use some judgment here. Sometimes chameleons will blink their eyes. Sometimes they need to flush out their eyes. The danger sign is when they are left alone, think no one is watching and their eyes are closed as if they are napping during the day. Napping is great for us, but is not a healthy chameleon activity.
These are conditions which affect the chameleon from the outside. You usually know these items as basic husbandry. But incorrect temperatures or other environmental conditions produce stress. And this is the exact same thing as you being too cold. You can handle it for a while, but just go to an office every day that is too cold and you end up getting sick on a regular basis. Your immune system has been weakened and finally, something bad took hold. Drafts are an example of external physical stress that could drive someone with a perfect cage set-up crazy. Especially if it is in the form of an air conditioner that goes on when the said keeper is at work. A regular blast of cold air day after day will become a health issue quickly and no images shared with your vet or across the internet will show this issue unless someone happens to catch the air conditioning vent above the cage.
Lastly, emotional or behavioral stress. This is stress that comes from the chameleon’s perception of the world. A sense of security will be different for each chameleon. Elements that affect security are cage interior design, cage placement, and interaction with other living creatures. Chameleons are prey animals and have a need to feel protected. Even predators need a safe place to sleep when they are feeling vulnerable. A chameleon’s cage is their most significant source of security. They will soon view their cage as their bush. It is their territory. A chameleon comfortable in their cage will have no problem with you walking around outside, but as soon as you open the door you are now in their territory and you will illicit a response appropriate for how much they fear you. A new wild caught will likely rush into the safety of the leaves or puff up and try to scare you away while a captive bred that knows you well may excitedly come closer in anticipation of the special silkworm treat that your fingers always bring. Make sure your cage has a leafy area that the chameleon can retreat to that hides him from view (more or less). As he gets used to you and the environment he will use it less and less, but the knowledge that he has a safe place will help him feel secure. This leafy retreat also serves as an early health warning. A chameleon that is usually basking and out in the open waiting for that silkworm now spending time in their so called “safe spot” is a great way for you to pick up on that your chameleon is getting sick. This is an internal physical stress, but we are using the emotional psyche of the chameleon to hide when sick to our benefit. In fact the best way to tell if your chameleon is not feeling well is a change of normal behavior. This is why you being attuned to your particular chameleon’s behavior is so critical because every chameleon is different. But the only way you can see a change in behavior is if you create areas of the cage which allow different behaviors! If your cage is just a network of perching branches with a dripper in the corner your chameleon is on display all day and you will get sick signs much later into the sickness because the chameleon has the pressure to be in the open and show its strength. The bottom line is to construct your cage interior to give that emotional retreat.
Your cage placement is important as well. You need to be aware of what your chameleon can see and what is happening around it. Birds and cats eat chameleons. Placing your chameleon cage next to your loveable pet parrot and your cat’s favorite napping spot may make for a human “Awwww” worthy Christmas card, but you just filled your chameleon’s life with predators in close proximity. Don’t do this to your little guy. Yes, chameleons are impressive in their ability to realize they are safe in a cage, but you know they will flinch whenever the bird stretches its wings or the cat wakes up. Just think about some alien putting you in a cage and letting you float in a tub with great white sharks. This is what we often ask our chameleons to do without thinking about it. Also consider what kind of activity goes on around the cage. Placing the cage near a kitchen door which opens many unpredictable, without-warning times through out the day is a poor placement. Surprises and even anticipation of surprises are a stress. While a door opening would be considered a stress spike, constant stress spikes become a chronic stress condition.
And, just a side note, throughout this podcast I am giving examples of stress causing events. I am going into detail as to what they could be to effectively communicate the concept. Every chameleon is different and every situation is different. Please do not go away saying that Bill said that opening kitchen doors is a chameleon stressor and beat down anyone who has a cage near a kitchen. You will run into the guy who everytime he comes out of the kitchen feeds his chameleon a special treat. This guy has just turned a surprise stress situation into an excitement situation. What will or won’t stress your chameleon depends on the individual skittishness or shyness and what an event means to that particular chameleon. And this is always changing as the chameleon grows. Please just take the concepts and apply it to your situation.
Height is security for chameleons. Notice how they tend to like to crawl to the top of your head? One way to help your chameleon feel secure in his cage is to place it high enough that the chameleon can perch above all the activity. Dogs or small children running around suddenly have much less effect on your chameleon because they feel they are removed from it all. Placing the cage on a dresser can make all the difference in the world! You’ll notice that a newly acquired chameleon higher up than you will display more annoyance than fear when you put your hand in its cage. If you are at eye level you have a higher component of fear involved.
And then there are stresses from interactions with other living creatures. I hope it is obvious that chameleons should not be playing with your other pets. It could be a tragic mistake to think that the affection your cat or dog shows you applies to all living things. But there are two common interactions that we as a community commonly subject our chameleons to. Those are interactions with human and with other chameleons.
We will start with humans. Since your pet chameleon will be interacting with you to some degree it is important that you learn the signs of fear in chameleons. Fear is the stress that we will be dealing with when we interact with our chameleon. We are predators and they are prey. We humans with our big brains have created this concept of a “pet” and need to be patient while chameleons catch up to this bizarre notion. And, not only do we expect that the chameleon be okay with captive life (which, if we do our job right, they adjust to beautifully) we now want to handle them! Boy, evolution spends millions of years firmly ingraining survival red flags into the chameleon’s gut instinct and we decide that we are going to toss those out the window! So, pull up a seat and get comfortable. We need to set the stage for this topic.
First, let’s understand that there are fundamental differences between us and chameleons and our world views.
Holding and touching are human bonding elements. We see this in many pack animals. Dogs, cats, parrots, and elephants to mention a few. These social relationships are strengthened by touch. Our culture clash is that chameleons are not social animals in the way we are. They are solitary animals and in their language, touch does not mean affection. There is no reason for a chameleon to have developed a sense of relationship, as we know it, with other chameleons and especially not with humans. These other animals make great pets because they have the sense of family that they can transfer to include humans. Chameleons start off with a huge handicap in this area. Dogs grow up being nurtured by their mother and enter into a pack structure. It doesn’t matter whether that mother is a dog or you. The community structure is ingrained. Being nurtured is being licked. Whether that is with a dog’s tongue or a human hand it is still nurturing. There are so many similarities between a dogs view of relationships and a person’s view of relationships that the combo is almost intuitive. We agree on what these actions and structures mean.
Chameleons, on the other hand, have no concept of family as egg layers have no idea where they came from and live bearers disperse as soon as possible.
There just is no parallel in a chameleon’s experience to slightly tweak to include benevolent humans. The only natural category we fit into, as far as a chameleon can see, is a predator. To bring in the stress zone concept, we could say that any relationship skills and ability to relate to you as a pet keeper is working within the tolerance zone part of the chameleon psyche. It is foreign to them. We are working with the ability of the chameleon to suppress its natural signals to escape. It is actually pretty impressive that they can do this! We really push it when we handle our chameleons. Being in the hand of a predator is the last thing before being in the mouth of a predator. At least that is the instinct they are born with. We want to reprogram them. And each chameleon will adjust to this differently. Exceptional individuals completely lose their fear of humans. I have seen them and they are a joy to have around! But that is not common. Most individuals can lose their fear of humans, but retain their discomfort of being handled for long periods of time. Some individuals just cannot put aside their instinct to defend themselves against a larger animal and you get a fight or flight response every time you come near. Luckily, the most common chameleons available in the pet industry fall into the middle ground.
So go into the idea of handling fully acknowledging that you are no longer working hard to bring your husbandry closer and closer to that chameleon comfort zone. We are deliberately taking an unnatural and stressful situation and our goal is to reprogram the chameleon to move the interaction as far away from the intolerance zone as possible. It is important to realize that this is what you are doing because you cannot take it personally when the chameleon reacts poorly or progresses slowly. Every chameleon will react differently to taming and you will have to be attuned to chameleon language to make it work without over stressing your chameleon. If handling is important to you then you need patience, an understanding of stress signals, and to accept your chameleon’s ability or inability to meet your desires. Since this is an episode about stress I will leave the actual taming techniques for a later episode. Today I will give you the signs of stress which are born of fear. But before we get into that I’d like to put this into perspective. The stress associated with handling or going through a taming session falls under the stress spike category. If you are in tune with the signs of fear and stress then you will be able to adjust your handling sessions accordingly. If you know and respect the signals your chameleon is giving you then handling will not be a health issue. Just be sensitive to what your chameleon is telling you. So here are your signs of fear or emotional stress in chameleon language
1) The Chameleon Salute. This is where the chameleon brings his front leg up close to his body. This is a usual first sign of fear. Often the chameleon will be leaning away from you while it is doing this.
2) Gular out. The gular is the pouch of skin in the throat area. Chameleons can puff it out to look bigger and it often has bright colors so a chameleon can use this as a warning sign to other chameleons that he means business. Unfortunately, to humans it just means he is showing off his beautiful colors and he looks really really cool! Thus the problem of speaking different languages!
3) Flattening body. Chameleons flatten their body to make their profile look bigger. This is a common tactic in the animal world. Looking bigger is an attempt to scare away another creature or make you look too big to eat. When a chameleon flattens their body at you they are trying to scare you away.
4) Gaping. Gaping is when they hold their mouth open. This is an obvious threat precursor to biting. Chameleons usually don’t want to bite and will give as much warning as possible to avoid having to do so. Well, most do. I have had some chameleons that seemed to like the taste of me and would go straight to biting. They didn’t bother with trying to scare me away and at times I suspected they may have been trying to draw me in.
5) Bright colors: Those bright colors we love so much are actually there to scare us off and let us know what a tough guy the chameleon is. It is unfortunate that chameleon language for “get away from me” is so beautiful to our eyes.
6) Darkened colors: On the other side of the color spectrum is the darkening of colors. The darkened colors are a sign of submission. This is a chameleon that has accepted defeat. This is usually done in response to a dominance contest with another chameleon, but can happen with you. You may see this response when every time the chameleon tries to get away you corral it back and the chameleon finally accepts that any attempt at escape is futile. The subsequent darkening of color or, worse, closing of eyes, is unfortunately, not contentment with being where ever it is you have placed it, but resignation to the fact that it cannot escape.
8) Swiveling away. This happens if you have the chameleon on a stick or are trying to get it out of its cage and it doesn’t want to come. The chameleon will swivel itself around the stick to put the stick between you and it. They will flatten their body to the point where there are two eye staring back at you from either side of the branch. Once again, it is unfortunate that this display of fear is so cute to us. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and chameleons are from Saturn.
9) Running away. Running away is kind of obvious. But with chameleons it is a little complicated. They know that their best defense is to stay still and hope they are not seen. They know they are not built for escape via running away. So it is important that you not use a chameleon NOT running away as a sign that they like where they are. Give a chameleon a path of escape and leave the room. If you come back and they are staying put then you can say they like where they are.
10) Dropping and/or Discing. Some of the more skittish chameleons will jump off your hand into free space. This is a defense mechanism that gambles that the fall is better than the sure thing of being eaten. If your chameleon is willing to jump into the unknown and take its chances with a fall then you know you have a long road to taming this guy down. Some species, like quadricornis and montium will actually roll up in a tight disc shape and get some gliding action on their way down. It is very cool to see, but I don’t recommend trying it out.
11) The Double Chameleon Salute is where the chameleon rises both front legs up close to his body and is swaying on his back legs at this point the gular (his throat) is usually puffed out, his body is flattened, and he is probably got his mouth open and looking like he might bite. And, yes, biting is next.
12) Biting: Yep, good old fashion biting. It is the universal language for get away from me! Chameleons can and will bite. They have teeth and can draw blood. But, as scary as being bitten is for most people, remember that chameleons usually give many warning signs before they bite. You will encounter behaviors on this big long list we have just gone through before you get the bite so if you are understanding chameleon-speak – and we just went over the basics – you are not going to have to worry so much about a surprise bite. It will usually happen when you have ignored the previous signs.
13) Eye Turrets sunken in. We can learn so much about our chameleon by its eyes. The eyes and the eye turrets are windows into your chameleon’s health. Eye turrets starting to sink in is your warning sign that you have started to step into the intolerance zone. Whatever is currently happening should have stopped long ago.
14) Eyes closed. Anytime your chameleon is sitting with its eyes closed and it is not dark and time for sleeping be very concerned. This is a chameleon shutting down due to stress whether it be emotional stress (they have given up trying to escape) or internal physical stress (it is so painful inside). You need to either get them away from the external stress source or take care of the internal condition.
So, to sum up, handling is, usually, just a stress spike. It is a stress, but not one that will land you in the vet’s office unless you just ignore all the stress signs and totally overload your poor chameleon. Know the signs of stress and fear and manage them appropriately for what you are trying to accomplish. When worked with slowly and patiently with respect for not going to far at once, chameleons will tame down to a reasonable level which, of course, is determined by each individual chameleon’s ability to adjust.
Our other major interaction situation is co-habitation. This is where two or more chameleons are put in the same cage. It is natural for when two chameleons meet to establish which one is dominant and gets to keep the bush. That is just what they do. The one that loses the dominance contest needs to go and find another bush. Depending on how aggressive the two individuals are the dominance contest may be short and unimpressive or it may end up being a spectacular display of colors and physical attacking. It is widely accepted that you can’t have two males together so our husbandry problems usually come from housing a pair of chameleons together, multiple females together, or a clutch of babies.
These situations are generally discouraged due to the raft of complications that they can cause. As with the discussion on handling, this episode is about the stress, not the techniques in managing cohabitation so my purpose here is to give you the warning signs. If you have chameleons of any age in the same cage you will have to be well versed in the signs of trouble. The reason why this is critical is because co-habitation stress is a chronic stress. It is in the living space of the chameleon and they cannot escape it. And that really is the crux of the problem. The problem with co-habitation is not when chameleons are around each other, but when they can’t get away from each other. The reason is simple. When in a dominance battle, the winner knows he has won when the loser shows submissive colors and leaves the area. If we have stuck these two chameleons in the same cage, the loser can show as much submissive colors as he or she wants, but can never finish the contest by leaving the bush. The dominant one is under low grade stress as every day he has to continue fighting and the submissive one is under low grade stress because he or she cannot leave and let the battle end. This is why free range set-ups work for chameleon groups. Whenever squabbles arise, the submissive one can give the victor all the signals that he has won and the contest can be ended to the satisfaction of both parties. Everyone can go on with their lives. This is not the case for chameleons sitting in a cage. Even with equal basking, water, and feeding stations, co-habitation is not advised because you don’t know when one of the two decides they are done being in the same space. You could have two individuals that seem to be compatible one day not be compatible for whatever reason. These reasons could be anything from coming of some age to going in or out of a certain season for mating. Chameleons in the wild can be found around each other, but they also have complete freedom to get away from each other. We cannot remove that one important aspect of that interaction and think we will be successful! The typical scenario is that the pair or group appears to be getting along, but that dominance battles are being fought on a non-physical level. If the two or more chameleons come to an agreement of who is in charge, are happy with it, and the winner backs down then you have a peace of sorts. If there is constant question as to who rules the roost or the dominant one does not get the right signals that he has truly won (remember that “leaving the bush” is the official close of the contest) then your chameleons may be locked in a silent, but real tug of war. This tug of war takes a toll on both parties.
Now I realize that most of the breeders here use the bin method to raise babies. For those new to this, the bin method is where a clutch of babies is raised in groups. The breeder has a number of bins or cages that are used to separate the babies as they grow up so the babies are around like-sized cage mates. The reason the sorting is done is because babies bully each other. Babies naturally grow at different rates, but that is compounded by whether the baby is part of the alpha dominant group or the submissive group. The babies are constantly shifted around to make sure the weaker ones don’t waste away and/or die. Raising babies together is a skill not in proper husbandry, but in making sure that the group dynamic does not get out of hand. Nipped tails, minor bite marks, and slower growing individuals are all signs that chameleon nature did not sign up for close quarters.
This podcast is about best practices. So I can only hesitantly support bin raising or any kind of co-habitation. Few people go through the expense to individually raise babies. But I can tell you breeders of parsonii certainly find a way! While not ideal, bin raising of babies has produced quality babies for may years. I have done it often, myself. Yes, babies have squabbles and some get damaged, but it overall works good enough and a breeder skilled in recognizing trouble signs and moving babies around can avoid major incidents.
Whether babies or adults you may find yourself in a situation where you need to keep chameleons together for at least a short period of time. This could be the three months it takes to raise babies up before going to new homes, an impulse buy, or any other unexpected event.
Rest assured that co-habitating chameleons do not self-combust immediately and some can adjust to varying degrees. For the purposes of this podcast I want to give you signs of stress and dominance play. Once you have that information and you know what is going on between your chameleons you can make the appropriate adjustments.
So here is your list of signs to watch out for. Note that all of these can happen for a variety of reasons. If they happen once they are merely a stress spike. If they happen repeatedly to the same individual you can suspect you have a targeted victim and that this victim is living with a chronic stress situation.
And I need to make this clear. I am giving you these stress signs so that you can recognize things that are going on before they get to the point where damage is being done. There are many signs of trouble that happen before you get to physical confrontations that you can head off serious trouble before it happens. But I would not feel good about this information being used to specifically make a forced long term co-habitation situation work. That scenario is usually tied to production of eggs for a business. I am not thrilled when business interests try to justify compromised husbandry practices.
That said, remember that there are times when you may choose to do something besides what we know are best practices. That is not always bad. There are always things to be learned by trying things differently. By knowing the stress signs you can make sure that your chameleons aren’t needlessly suffering. Here are some communications regarding stress and dominance play.
1) Climbing the walls of the cage: Chameleons should not climb the walls of their cage. They will do this for the first few days in a new cage, but, if the cage is set-up appropriately, the chameleon will settle in and stay comfortably on horizontal branches. If the chameleon is scaling the cage walls then they are trying to get somewhere else and there is something wrong with their cage or its location. If you have a group situation and one chameleon continually is scaling the cage walls then you have one chameleon trying to leave the situation. This is a clear sign that your chameleon needs another living area.
2) Always perching below the other: If there is a situation where one chameleon constantly is perching lower than the other you have a dominance structure established. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless this is accompanied by other items on this list. If both the dominant one and submissive one are content with the hierarchy then you may have a time window of peaceful co-existence. But watch out for some of these other signs that the dominance battle is not truly over or has reared its ugly head again.
3) dark colors: The submissive one out of a dominance battle signals to the victor that they won by displaying dark submissive colors. They are also suppose to leave the area. If the submissive one will not break out of the darker colors you may have a situation where the submissive one will be continually bullied until they leave the bush…which of course can’t happen so if one of your chameleons is constantly in darker colors you may have a lingering dominance battle.
4) the dominant one eats first. Does one chameleon always have to be the first to eat? It may even go as far as the dominant one eating all the food so the submissive one goes hungry. Or that the dominant one eats the food the submissive one was eyeing. You’ll see this when you introduce a female to a male for breeding. Let a cricket go near them and see who snags it. If the male snags it then you may have chance at a good mating. If the female snags it in front of the male then you may have a female that is letting the male know this won’t be easy. This is one of those things that is not 100%, but try it a couple times and see if you get a pattern. Sometimes there is a stand off for some reason between a male and a female and neither moves. If you see this let a cricket go running up the side of the screen cage. I have had that break the tension as the male snags the cricket and then goes to successfully mate the female. Just a tip to try.
5) the dominant one climbs over the other. We see a dominant chameleon climbing over a submissive one in many scenarios. We see it in babies and we see it in females that do not feel like breeding. If you are wondering if this is bullying behavior or not then just observe whether it is consistently the same characters involved in the incidents.
6) stealing food from another’s mouth. Stealing food from another chameleon’s mouth can be just being attracted to an insect and not caring that another chameleon already caught it, but if it happens continuously between the same individuals you know something more is going on.
7) tail nipping. Tail nipping is when one chameleon will follow another and bite the tip off of the tail. It is not uncommon for “B” grade chameleons to be sold with nipped tails. This happens more often with babies as they are kept together more often, but this happens with adults living together as well. I usually hear about a particular trouble maker in a certain group that gets a taste for tail tips and becomes a repeat offender.
8) Bite marks. If you see faint black rings on a baby chameleon those are probably bite marks from a sibling. The good news is that these marks usually go away after a shed or two. So, even if you get a baby with a black, mouth shaped ring on them, it is not a reason to get too excited. Babies shed often and, unless the bite was deep, it will disappear soon enough.
9) Eyes closed. As stated before, when the eyes close during the day you know the situation has progressed too far. You have trend far into the intolerance zone and things are physically breaking down. Find the stress point and remove it immediately.
10) Losing weight. The trouble with low grade stress is it is something that happens over time and is not the direct cause of death. So your chameleons live together for 9 months seemingly fine and then one gets a bacterial infection. If it happens over time and it is subtle how can you know it is happening before the infection stage? Well, first of all, don’t put yourself in that position – keep your chameleons separately! But one of the most valuable habits you can get into is weighing your chameleon on a weekly basis. It is by this practice that you will be able to measure your chameleon’s relative health with respect to time. Anytime your chameleon is losing weight you have your early warning sign.
I would not be surprised if there are other examples of dominance play that you all have witnessed. If you have something not on my list send me an email! Keep your eye out for signs of building stress to nip it in the bud. And let’s work on bringing our chameleons as close to the comfort zone as possible. My episode today is not meant to say what should or should not be done in handling, caging, or other aspects of husbandry. My purpose was to expose chameleon communication the best that I have been able to uncover in these decades of trying to figure them out and to figure out where I can get better in what I do. Take these data points and apply them to your chameleon husbandry and see if any of them can help make your care better. And if I have missed something here, please let me know! Although do not confuse being able to keep chameleons alive with success in husbandry. Chameleons are fighters and will live through an amazing amount before dropping off. “Still breathing” was the standard of success in the 80s. We have moved on from that and have learned enough that we can have chameleon quality of life as our target standard. That is what I am really interested in discussing.
And we’ll close up there. Thank you for joining me in this extra long episode. I considered breaking it up into a two part series, but it all tied in so tightly that it had to go together. If you are interested in some links to the topics presented then you can find them in the show notes at chameleonacademy.com. Look for episode 6.
The reason I can sit and put together an hour long educational episode is because of support from the Dragon Strand caging company. Creating designs specifically to reduce stress in chameleons has allowed me to study this chameleon behavior in depth. I designed the Breeder Series of hybrid cages specifically for breeders to be able to keep their breeders visually isolated and even to raise babies up individually to avoid nipped tails, bite marks, and the effects of bullying. The cages have screen fronts for ventilation, but solid sides to keep them from being affected by others next to them. You can even have a breeding pair of panthers and 24 babies raised individually in 8 feet of wall space with a couple racks and the Breeder series cage systems. Look in the show notes for pictures and links or just visit dragonstrand.com
Have a great New Year’s day! We have many things planned for this podcast in 2016 and can’t wait to get to them! So hold on, chameleon wranglers, this ride is just beginning!