Case Study: 2′ x 2′ x 4′ Cage

Introduction

This tutorial shows how to set-up 2′ x 2′ x 4′ size cage in the floating garden style to create an effective environment for a chameleon.

In this build we will execute the Forest Edge 4+4 method. The “Forest Edge 4+4” method is a checklist type guide to ensure we have all the necessary aspects to a chameleon specific environment (and is explained here: Forest Edge 4+4).

We will be using the Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage System as our demo model. This cage has a number of unique characteristics including a solid back wall, six Dragon Ledges, a fitted drainage tray, and a Hydration Mount that allows us to install both a mist head and a plant watering drip system. The principles herein, though, can apply to any of the many 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cages on the market. Dragon Ledges are a integral part in the design of this cage and make a substantial difference in what you are able to do with the cage interior. But these principles may be implemented without them.


2' x 2' x 4' Cages on the Market

Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage System

Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage System.

This is the cage used in this build.

consists of a 2′ x 2′ x 4′ screen cage but also includes six Dragon Ledges, a Hydration Mount for a mist head, a fitted Drainage Tray, and an additional screen floor.

The unique feature of this screen cage is that the back panel is actually solid to protect the walls and furniture from mist overspray. So, in this cage build, I use each of these features to their full benefit and create a high end build.

The Reptibreeze XL has been positioned as the low price leader for 2′ x 2′ x 4′ screen cage in the community. Although they do use cheaper materials, this cage does the job.


Step 1: Assemble Cage

opening box

Assembly

If you haven’t already, follow the assembly instructions to assembly the cage. Basic reminders for success are 1) use a bowl to hold all the screws you take out of bags, 2) Build the cage on a flat surface, 3) Don’t overtighten the screws.

When we build out the interior of this cage we will be moving a lot of things in and out. It will be much easier to build out this cage without the door attached so I suggest to not install the main door until everything is in. The door can be the final step in the entire process. The service door (the door at the bottom front that swings up) is fine to install and helps the stability of the cage as we move things in and out and cinch things tight with zip ties.

And just one note on using zip ties. Zip ties are very strong and will force two objects together. Use zip ties to hold two objects in place (example: a branch resting on a Dragon Ledge.) Do not use zip ties to pull two objects across an empty space. An example of this would be a large branch that is an inch away from the Dragon Ledge. If you zip tie objects together that are not already resting against each other, one or both of the objects can break or deform. The lesson is that zip ties should be used to keep the cage items in place, not to force the objects into a certain configuration that they resist.

best friend

I strongly suggest you build cages in good company. You never know when you might lose a certain piece of ripped off cardboard and a true friend will make sure you do not lose such a treasure.

Misting Nozzle Mount Hardware

When considering the placement for the mist nozzle we need to consider what we want it to do. In my designs I am not using the misting system to shower my chameleons. Although it has been, up until very recently, something I practiced, I am now listening to my chameleons when they tell me they don’t like to be sprayed. So my misting system is now used to help with night time humidity and lay down a layer of dew for the chameleon to wake up to in the morning. This means I need my mist nozzle in the position where it can reach the leafy areas. A single nozzle for your Mist King/Cli-Mist is enough for a 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cage. In the case of the Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage, it actually has the solid back panel so we have a little more wiggle room as to how we point the nozzle because we don’t have to worry about spraying the house walls behind the back panel.

The Dragon Strand Hydration Mount can be attached anywhere along the inside frame of the top panel while the Mist King and Cli-Mist mounting hardware work only in the corners. In our build, I am going to place the nozzle so it can point to the rear right. Any of the mounting wedges listed can accommodate this. My dense leafy area is on the right side of my cage and so I am going to have the mist nozzle spray from left to right. This way I can blanket the leaves of my main cage plant, the neon pothos, as much as possible. My object here is surface coverage as I want my chameleon to wake up to a world covered in dew.

Mounting the Mist King/Cli-Mist mist nozzles is straight forward as the mounting hardware makes this simple. Using the Exo-Terra Monsoon or any misting system that using suction cups is a challenge. These were designed for glass terrariums and adapting to a screen cage is not easy. The Hydration Mount from Dragon Strand does have a grommeted 1/4″ input that can be used to get the Monsoon misting nozzle inside the cage, but then you will have to find a surface or way to mount it.

Note if you are using the Dragon Strand Hydration Mount: If you ever intend to use the grommet, remove it before installing on the cage. The grommet is designed to fit snuggly and compress the screen to the hydration mount so any loose screen strands from making the hole are covered and contained. If you install the Hydration Mount without removing the grommet it will be a great deal of effort to remove the grommet without removing the Hydration Mount from the frame.

Install the Hydration Mount/Misting Wedge at this step while you can place the top panel on the floor to install the hardware. Trying to install the Mount upside down after the cage is together is a miserable experience and increases the likelihood of a screwdriver going through the screen top. But do not install the actual mist nozzle yet. That can go on at the end to keep it from getting in the way of construction.

Dragon Strand Hydration Mount

The Hydration Mount from Dragon Strand was designed to give us the freedom to mount our mist heads anywhere along the inside frame and includes a grommeted 1/4″ tubing input.

Mist King Misting Wedge

The Mist King Misting Wedge is a corner mount only. Mist King usually does not include this in their bundles. If you are purchasing a Mist King and have a cage other than Dragon Strand (which include a mount already) then ensure you add this to your purchase.

CliMist Mounting Wedge

Cli-Mist usually includes a Mounting Plate in their bundles. They describe it as a “free gift” so, presumably, they can decide not to include it at any time. But they have been saying that, and including it, for many years so it is safe to say that if you buy a mister from Cli-Mist chances are more than excellent that you will be getting that corner mount Mounting Plate.

fogging the right side of the cage

The Hydration Mount from Dragon Strand was designed to give us the freedom to mount our mist heads anywhere along the inside frame.

corner misting mount

Corner mount mist brackets are sufficient for cages with a 2′ x 2′ footprint or less.

mist head placement

In my cage design I have the main leafy plant on the right side so the best placement for the mist head is on the front left side pointing to the back right side. the Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage system has a solid back panel to stop mist from hitting your house walls. If you have a completely screen cage the hanging of bamboo/straw mats or plastic sheeting behind the cage is possible if there is a overspray problem.


Stand and Placement

Placement

Somewhere along the way you will have to think about where you will be placing the chameleon cage and what you will be setting it on. Ideally, you figure that out in the beginning! The reason is that you can use elements of your home in your cage set-up. Chameleons have excellent vision and they can see everything in your house. The placement of your cage should take into account the flow of human and other pet activities as well as where the windows and heating/cooling vents are. In the picture of my cage, the right side of the cage is in the corner of the house, while the left side is by a room door. So I take account of these and I plan for the area for my chameleon’s hiding place to be on the right side. Remember that in a cage that has screened sides that a spot is not hidden just because you cannot see it from the front. It needs to be hidden from ALL angles. House corners are great for blocking the sides so my dense plant cover is to the right. But the wall needs to be very close to the cage side to be considered “safe” by the chameleon. If your cage is a couple feet away from the wall then it imay not register as safe in the chameleon’s mind and they may always be on guard in that direction. This is life for a chameleon and is not necessarily a stress inducing arrangement, but our goal is to create a hidden area for rest and relaxation. We may as well make sure it is as effective as possible. The opaque back panel makes the entire back side safe and you can take advantage of this in creating your chameleon safe places.

Stand

I am going to use a standard black wire rack to set up my cage. This has great flexibility in that the shelves can be set at any level and it is all on wheels. I can have storage below the cage and my lights and equipment set up on a shelf above the cage. This allows me to have my energy sources raised above the cage so my chameleon does not have to deal with the intense energy produced in the first couple inches of the device. I will go deeply into this when we talk about lighting this cage.

Wire Accessory Basket for Fogger

Wire rack shelves also have a number of accessories that are useful us. In this case, a wire basket hooks on the side and makes for a perfect perch for a fogger and a lush potted plant to hide the equipment!

Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage on wire rack

This black wire shelving unit has been incredibly versatile and will adjust to just about any cage I am building. I have added a number of accessory baskets which hold my fogger, but also hold some plants to break up the utilitarian nature of the rack and give it a homey feel. Underneath I have storage space which I can place maintenance items as well as the misting system and water basin.

This wire rack is 48″ wide. This width allows you to place other items on the rack. You can always get a 36″ wide rack if you choose.

The link above is my choice as it is black, has wheels, and is 82″ high instead of the standard 72″ wire rack.

Wire Basket from Target

These black wire baskets make a great storage area for the fogger! I have found the best ones at Target and these can be purchased online at the link in the image.

Using bamboo/straw mats is completely optional. If your particular application has mist coming out the side panels these bamboo/straw mats can offer a more natural view than plastic tarp. I am not using mats in my application because my nozzle is pointed at the back and, if pointed strategically, the thick pothos blocks any waifing mist from getting out the sides.

This is the alternative wire rack at 36″ wide.


Choosing a Floor

Most 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cages come with one solid plastic floor panel.

If you are using a Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage then you will be needing to make a decision between having a solid floor panel and having a screen floor panel (it comes with both).

Solid floors are best if you plan on placing potted plants on the floor of the cage. The solid floor gives your plants the support they need.

A screen floor gives optimal drainage and is perfect for cage designs that incorporate plants mounted on the sides of the cage.

Having two floors allows you to keep a spare floor around in the case of deep cleaning which requires the removal of your floor to be scrubbed and disinfected. In this case you may temporarily use the second floor in the cage so you can leisurely wash the main use floor.

solid floor

Floor Option #1: PVC Floor. The PVC floor is used if you plan on putting potted plants on the floor of the cage. If you elect to use the plastic floor then you’ll need to consider the drainage aspect. On the flat floor, water will gather until it grows enough to overcome the floor friction that keeps it from flowing and draining over the sides. If you place a potted plant then there will be a slight indentation where water could gather instead of flowing over the side. In all these cases, the drainage issue can be solved by drilling small holes in the floor panel to allow water drainage exactly where it pools. Select a hole size that is smaller than half the size of your feeder insects so you do not get escapees. For my personal use cages, I drill a grid of small holes over the entire floor panel and especially target plant pot indentation so water does not have a chance to “marinate” under the pot.

screen floor

Floor Option #2: “Drip Easy” Screen Floor. The screen floor is available with Dragon Strand cages and allows maximum drainage. This style floor is used extensively with Dragon Strand cages because the Dragon Ledges allow the mounting of plants along the sides of the cage leaving the floor clear. A number of keepers do put potted plants on the screen floor, but the screen really is not meant to support potted plants.


Drainage Tray

Keepers of chameleons generally provide moisture through fogging and misting systems which means that waste water ends up at the bottom of the cage. We do not want to allow a situation where poop, water, and escaped feeder insects can combine. This creates a very unhygienic situation where the feeder insect picks up a load of bacteria and can deliver it to the chameleon if the chameleon eats it.

The best approach to this is to have a tray system under the cage that will collect the water and/or drain it away to a bucket for disposal. Drainage trays are rare. Dragon Strand is the only major cage supplier to provide fitted drainage trays for chameleon cages. The alternatives are to use any large tray that your cage will fit in and lift the cage off the bottom so water won’t seep back into the cage.

Unfortunately, the largest cage suppliers only offer substrate trays, which are trays that go inside the cage. This is not ideal because now you are holding the water inside the cage. This is the exact condition we are trying to avoid!

Easy, but unadvised, approaches are to use paper towels or “puppy pads” on the bottom to soak up the moisture. This a the last resort because the soaked material provides an opportunity to water, poop, and escaped feeders to meet up.

drainage tray

The Dragon Strand 25″ Drainage Tray will fit the common 24″ x 24″ cages such as the Reptibreeze XL and DIY cages. It is designed with supports that lift the cage out of the waste water and support the floor int he middle in case your cage design uses potted plant on the cage floor.  This tray will fit any cage below 24″ x 24″ footprint. The drainage tray is strong as far as downward force, but it is not designed to lift and carry the cage. If you need to move the cage, use the Dragon Ledges or grab the cage itself to lift and move the cage. Do not use the drainage tray to carry the cage!
When cleaning the black PVC drainage trays do not leave them to dry in the sun or put them through the dishwasher. The intense heat in both these situations can warp the tray. The drainage tray is designed to be used indoors.

If you have purchased a Tall Screen Cage System from Dragon Strand a tray will be included in the system already.

There are drain pans that are available that can fit standard 24″ x 24″ cages. The draw back to these pans is that you will need to add in supports to raise the cage out of the tray. You can construct a base from PVC piping to use these standard trays if you want to engage in an afternoon project. Whether this saves money or not depends greatly on whether you have the tools necessary on hand to cut PVC piping. But anything may be used as stands to lift the cage out of the waste water at the bottom of the tray.

Emptying the Drainage Tray

If you do have a tray that gathers the water you will probably need to figure out how to remove the water. The most commonly asked question is if drainage trays slide out. This sounds like a good idea, but in practice it just doesn’t work. You only attempt to slide a 24″ x 24″ pan full of water once before you realize any movement sends waves and spilling is inevitable. We will go over emptying the drainage tray in four separate ways

  • Evaporation.
  • Wet/Dry Vacuum.
  • Turkey Baster.
  • Gravity Drain.

Evaporation. The water in the drainage tray will evaporate. Whether the rate of evaporation matches your water input to the system will depend on how much water you put into your system and the ambient humidity. Evaporation will also be encouraged by the use of the Drip Easy screen floor. In my case, with the screen cage and screen floor evaporation takes care of the bulk of the water.

Wet/Dry Vacuum. The most commonly used method for dealing with the collected water is a small wet/dry vacuum with a crevice tool that can be stuck into the drainage tray and simply suck up all the water. The drainage tray is designed so that if the cage is shifted to a rear corner, there is enough room to the side of the cage to stick in a 3/4″ crevice tool nozzle. If you keep the cage floor clear it gets even simpler as you can open the service door and just stick the nozzle under the floor. Then you can suck up all the water from the middle of the tray.

My wet/dry vacuum of choice is the “Bucket Head” from Home Depot which is an attachment that snaps onto the top of a standard 5 gallon bucket. Add to this an appropriately sized nozzle (sometimes called “crevice tool”) and you are set. I have links below for this product, but these items are also available in-store.

Home Depot Bucket Head

“Bucket Head” Wet/Dry Vacuum Attachment. This product is only the attachment. Ensure you also pick up a 5 gallon bucket and a crevice tool attachment. Look for 1-1/4″ attachments.

5 gallon bucket

5 Gallon Bucket. This will be the water reservoir that the Bucket Head attachment goes on top of.

crevice tool

Crevice Tool. This attachment to the hose of the Bucket Head will allow the vacuum to access the drainage tray.

vacuuming from side

The crevice tool will allow you to suck the water up easily. When you desire a deeper “clean” you can open the cage flip-up service door and stick the nozzle under the floor panel so it sucks the water from the middle of the drainage tray.

vacuuming a chameleon cage from the front

If your floor is clear then it is a simple matter to go through the Service Door and under the floor panel with the crevice tool and suck up the water from the middle of the tray.

Turkey Baster. This is the very low tech version of the wet/dry vacuum. But I did successfully use a turkey baster to remove water from my drainage tray for many months. As the evaporation took a great deal of the water and my misting was not excessive I would come in with a turkey baster every now and then and remove the water. This is simple and cheap, but if you have more than one cage I would suggest embracing a method that is less laborious.

Install a Gravity Drain. A gravity drain may be created by installing a 1/4″ connection in the drainage tray and running 1/4″ tubing to a bucket. This is not a configuration offered off the shelf and requires the drilling of a hole in the drainage tray and gluing a connector. So proceed only if you are confident with a small construction project. It really isn’t that complicated, but you are putting a hole into a tray that was designed to be water tight so you don’t want to mess this up!

As this is a separate project I will link to the guide as to how I implemented this.

gravity drain for chameleon cage drainage tray

Building the Dragon Ledge support structure

green cage

The patented Dragon Ledges are anchors that allow us to mount horizontal branches and potted plants anywhere along the inside wall of the cage. This allows us the flexibility to create beautiful floating gardens seemingly in the middle of the cage. Although we certainly can attach branches and items directly to the Dragon Ledges, we create an even more powerful tool if we zip tie two strong vertical branches to the two horizontal Dragon Ledges on each side. This makes a solid grid that we can attach to at any level that the vertical structure branches reach. I will be demonstrating this strategy here.

Dragon Ledges come in different lengths to accommodate different cage sizes. If you have the Dragon Strand Tall Screen Cage System then you already have Dragon Ledges included with your cage. If you are using any other 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cage then a retrofit kit of Dragon Ledges is available below from Dragon Strand.


Dragon-Ledges-for-2x2x4 cage

Branches can be attached using zip ties. Hot glue can be used as well for connecting decorative items or even branch to branch. But I find, with the constant shrinking and expansion of wood, in misting and heat, that hot glue is not as effective as a zip tie. That said, please experiment on your own and do what you feel would be best. There is nothing here that is one time only. The cage is in constant flux and so we can try anything we want and do over anything that does not work out. Below are some items that may come in handy for connecting Dragon Ledges and Branches. You can purchase through these Amazon links or just go to your local home improvement store or art store.


Connection Equipment

I find the 8″ Zip Ties to be the most useful with the range of branch diameters I try to attach to Dragon Ledges and together. Zip Ties are easily found at home improvement stores in the electrical section if you want to pick them up in person. I use black so they do not stand out as much.

It is worth it to get some micro cutters to trim the tails off the Zip Ties for a clean look and to make the zip ties as inconspicuous as possible.

There are a wide range of glue gun qualities. For this application I choose a 100W unit, though you can find them down to 20W. Whatever glue gun you get, pay attention to the size of glue sticks it takes for when it is time to re-order.


Attaching Branches to the Dragon Ledges

With the strong vertical supports we are able to mount potted plants around the inside of the screen cage walls.horizontal branches can be added in at any height for support. Support branches can be horizontal or placed so they run in front of the pot and trapping it in place even without the zip ties. Before branching for the chameleon’s use, the cage is set up with strong support branches to ensure the pots are well anchored.

One hint from experience: If you make the distance between the two vertical branches on each side about 3-4″ it makes for a very effective nesting spot for the pots you will be attaching to them.

Dragon Ledge Support branches

The first step is to find some strong branches to use as vertical supports. Anything from a diameter of 1/2″ to 3/4″ to even 1″ is a good candidate. I, personally, seek out Oak as a branch type. The many parks and wooded areas around have an excess of oak branches fallen to the ground so I am kept busy sorting through all of the dead branches looking for the ones with the most character.

horizontal branches attached

Once the vertical supports are in, horizontal branches can be zip tied on at any height by lashing to the vertical supports. Before the plants go in you can put in the major perching branches being careful not to block entry to the pots. (I go over pots in the next section).

cross bars for pot support

To give pots support, shorter “cross beams” can be attached across the two vertical supports that makes just enough of a shelf to attach the pot.


Adding potted plants

When I put potted plants in my chameleon cages I like to do a double pot method where I mount one pot to the support structure with zip ties and branches and then I put the soil and plant into an identical pot to be slid right in later. This gives me the ability to remove and replace the plant at any time in the future with minimal inconvenience.

The ideal pot size for this is the 1/2 gallon size. These are often found in garden section of home improvement stores. 1/2 gallon landscaping pots are thin and cheap, but do the job. I can find them for about $1 in cost from the home improvement stores around my area.

When you mount a pot you need support in three places so the pot does not swing or shift. I place my pots with branches on three sides. As long as they are at different heights on different sides they are very effective in holding pots in place.

Mount your pots with the idea in mind that you will have to have enough space to drop a potted plant into the pot. Although that sounds simple, it is very easy to mount pots too high and then realize your mistake when you find there is not enough space for the arc of the pot to fit in. When I mount a pot I actually check it for fit with my potted plant before moving deeper into the build.

To mount the pot I put it in the place I desire the plant and then build up the branch support structure around it. A common configuration is to place the pot between two vertical branches and then zip tie a horizontal crossbeam below it for the pot to rest on. If you remember the hint to space the vertical support branches about 3-4″ apart, well here is where it makes sense. You can place a pot up against those two vertical branches and they will provide a good support distance. Then simply attach a cross beam where the bottom of the pot should be and the pot can rest on the horizontal support beam.

double pot method

I will be using the double pot method where one pot is zip tied to the branches and Dragon Ledges and the plant is in the other pot. This makes it easy to change out plants if necesary

holes in pot

The pot to be mounted will be put in place and the places where I want to drill holes for the zip ties marked by a Sharpie pen. This can be tricky to negotiate the tight spaces, but this is why chameleon keeping isn’t for the faint of heart. Once my pot has the marks I drill with a drill bit that is the diameter of the width of my zip ties. With cheap pots the plastic will be thin so you may need to develop drilling skill so it doesn’t rip the pot.

I am using standard 1/2 gallon landscaping pots which cost around $1 and are easy to drill through.

pot anchor points

The pots are then zip tied to the branch support network.

Every potted plant needs to be secured in three different axises. What this means is that there needs to be three point where the pot is tied down to a Dragon Ledge or branch and that these points need to be offset from each other so there is no “hinging” where the potted plant just swivels. This image shows the three anchor points for this particular pot. This is a typical configuration with the crossbar underneath.


Branching

Branches can be categorized into three types.

Structural Branches: Branches that form the support structure around the cage. These are generally thicker and provide a connection place for the other perching branches. Structural branches can be both vertical and horizontal. The most obvious vertical ones are the two per side that were placed on the Dragon Ledges to form the original grid structure. Thinner horizontal structural branches can be used to wedge pots in place to provide one of the anchor points.

Perching Branches: These are the branches that are selected to be of a diameter between where the chameleon can wrap their feet all the way around to where the chameleon can wrap their feet only half way around. These are placed horizontally as this is the comfort orientation of most chameleons. These should be placed at many places and heights in the cage. The two most important places are in a basking area and in an area hidden by leaves. This gives your chameleon a safe sleeping spot and a warm up spot. This doesn’t guarantee they will use them as we expect, but our job is only to give them the basics and let them take it from there.

Network Branches. These fill in all the spaces. These can be thick or thin. We want our chameleon to be able to use as much of the cage as possible. And by filling the cage with network branches we give our chameleon that option. The sides of the screen cage should not be considered walkways. In fact, screen walking is often a warning sign that something isn’t right with your cage.

We have to start with the structural branches. Once the pots are in we can put in the horizontal perching branches to make sure we have the major functions of basking and sleeping taken care of. We then fill in vertical, horizontal, and diagonal branches as “roadways” for the chameleon to travel from place to place in the cage.

branching in a chameleon cage
Branch types

This pictures shows all three types of branches. The structural branches are the thick vertical branches that are lashed to the Dragon Ledges and extend their anchoring value. The two main perching branches are here as well. The basking perching branch is the horizontal branch at the top which will provide the chameleon an open area to soak in both the heat and UVB. The sleeping perching branch is behind the wall of pothos leaves that I am holding open. There are a couple of branches that are behind here that can be sleeping branches. I feel we may as well give our chameleons as many choices as we can! But these are all hidden behind a wall of leaves so my chameleon can feel secure. He may or may not use it, but it is critical that it is available to him regardless of how often he needs to use it. All the other branches are network branches and are climbing tools. Also the thick pothos vines are part of the climbing network.

The perching branch needs special attention because it must coordinate with the light placement to give your chameleon perching space in the right distance from the basking and UVB bulb. A good guideline to follow is to place the perching branch 6″ below the top of the cage. But this branching needs to be under the UVB and basking bulbs. So it wouldn’t hurt to either place your lighting equipment on top the cage and see where the UVB and basking bulbs will shine.  Or else, if you don’t have your lights yet, you can make measurements. For example, the fixture I will be linking to below is 8.5″ wide so you can tell roughly where the UVB bulb will be (see the lighting section for bulb placement etc…). But be sure to take into account the misting head. The light placement will have to accommodate this barrier. Remember that there does not have to be just one perching branch. You can have a branch under the UVB bulb and a second one that leads to under the basking bulb.

Lighting


Lighting will be the most complicated part of this set up and I will present three options with the pros and cons of each.

But first, let’s review what we need to provide using light.

Vision. Chameleons are diurnal visual animals so they need a brightly lit cage area. This is actually not as easy to give as it sounds! It is difficult to find lighting systems that will punch through 4′ of area. But we will target a system which gives bright light to the top half of the cage and the rest can be considered hiding areas. The most effective technology we have is either T5 High Output fluorescent lights or the newer LED technologies. Although I am excited for my tests with LED technology I will recommend the well tested and used T5 technology.
Heat. Chameleons are ectothermic (cold-blooded) so they naturally expect cooler nights and look forward to basking in the sun to warm up in the morning.  We need to provide them this opportunity without giving them so much that they burn themselves trying to warm up. I am sorry that it is all a balance with sickness on either too little or too much. But this is the challenge we take on when we take responsibility for a living creature. We will use an incandescent light in a reflector. Incandescent lights used to be easy to pick up at any store, but more efficient LED technology has taken over. Unfortunately, it was the waste heat inefficiency that we needed! So we now have to work to find heat producing bulbs. For this build guide I am going to recommend and link to official reptile basking bulbs. But this is only because I can guarantee the links won’t disappear as plant lights or other lights are replaced by LED technology. As long as they produce heat they can be used as a basking bulb. Just make sure it is the correct level and not too much heat as chameleons are notorious for burning themselves.
UVB. Your chameleon needs exposure to UVB rays just like we do to produce vitamin D3. If they don’t get it they will get Metabolic Bone Disease which is the reptile equivalent to Ricketts in humans. This is where we don’t have enough calcium for our bones and we get rubbery, broken, and deformed skeletons. This will kill a chameleon so this is a serious piece of equipment. We will be using T8 and T5 fluorescent bulbs to give us the proper UVB levels inside the cage. We are targeting a basking area that give between UVI 1 and UVI 3 with a maximum UVI at the cage top of UVI 6. There is a great deal of science and experimentation behind these numbers. If you would like to learn more about where these numbers came from I encourage you to check out the UVB section at the Chameleon Academy at this link https://chameleonacademy.com/chameleon-cage-set-up-replicating-the-sun/. I am actively involved in researching the implementation of UVB in captive husbandry for chameleons and will keep the Chameleon Academy at the forefront of the latest in what we know.

You will see many implementations of UVB within all my set-ups as I refine the easiest to communicate. I will present one option here that is the simplest to execute. You may see other configurations in these pictures. If you are interested in other options or already have lights that you wish to see if they will work then please visit the Chameleon Academy where I have placed all my work. There you will find charts that show how to use different bulbs and different fixtures. (Chameleons and UVB)

For this build I needed to pick one implementation that was the simplest to both obtain and set-up. I will present a configuration that works with only mounting on top of the cage itself as this is how most people do it. I have encouraged my listeners to use wire racks to allow you the freedom of an entire shelf to place things. It also allows you to use more powerful lights and make more gentle gradients. So I will address this configuration as an alternative. If you are planning to do a “rack configuration” like I have or you have a means for suspending your lights 4″-6″ above your cage you can check out the “Rack Alternative” entry here.

Recommendation:

Quad T5 HO 24″ Fixture with 3* 6500K and one Arcadia 12% UVB raised up on the stands

8.5″ reflector with 75W Exo-Terra Heat bulb

Rack Alternative: You have the wire shelving rack I am using or you have the ability to suspend lights up to 6″ above the cage top. This is the ideal situation because this allows us to create an effective and gentle gradient of both temperature and UVB

Quad T5 HO 24″ Fixture with 4* 6500K

Single bulb fixture with one Arcadia 6% UVB

8.5″ reflector with 100W Exo-Terra Heat bulb

When setting up the fluorescent fixture, remove any plastic that is covering the bulbs. This fixture has a piece of plastic that will slide out to show the lights. Remove this and throw it away. This plastic blocks UVB and so we need it gone. Next, replace the fixture bulb in the back slot with the Arcadia 12% UVB bulb. To remove the bulb you first have to remove the clear rubber bands holding the lights in. Then carefully unplug each side of the light from its socket. Reverse the steps to install the new UVB bulb. You want to use the last slot because you want the bulb to be on the edge to have more access to the reflector (edge lights will get more energy reflected out than middle bulbs). The last slot is also the closest to the basking bulb in our scenario. As UVB is a very directional light you need to have the basking branch go directly under the bulb. So put the bulb in the position that is closest to being on top of your basking branch. This, of course, takes a little planning and coordination in the build steps.

There are feet that come with this fixture that will raise the fixture up. Install these feet and it will give the 12% UVB bulb the space to dissipate its highest energy output. To put this in perspective, the normal highest UVI readings in standard chameleon habitat are around UVI 13. And chameleons are hiding from the sun at these levels. If you place a T5 12% bulb in a multi-bulb fixture directly on the top of your screen cage the top screen will be at UVI 25- UVI 30. So a chameleon crawling upside down on the screen top will be exposing their belly to those levels. This is not good. But by using those feets you reduce the UVI at the top of the cage to UVI 7, which is within the realm of reason. The chameleon on the basking branch 5″-6″ below the top of the cage is in UVI 2-3 which is what we want.

The heat bulb will have the same characteristics which is why having it directly on the top of the cage has an element of danger to the chameleon to burn itself. Chameleons are known to climb the top panel and they are surprisingly unresponsive to burning themselves. They seem to just have no concept of being burned by a basking bulb that is too powerful. If you can suspend the basking bulb even a couple of inches it will do tremendous good. However you are able to place the bulb and reflector, check the temperature that your chameleon will be exposed to by placing the back of your hand at the level that the chameleon’s back (or casque) will reach. Make sure it is comfortable for your hand to be there. This is where the dimmer switch shines (so to speak). With the dimmer switch you are able to adjust the light output to accommodate whatever mounting and perching branch distance you have. If you have a thermometer you can take readings and set them for the level appropriate for your species.

12% in Quad Light placement

Standard Recommendation

Use these links if you are placing everything directly on the top of your cage. If you are using the wire shelving rack or have the ability to suspend lighting systems 4″-6″ above the cage top then go to the “Rack Alternative” shown next.

This Amazon entry has multiple selections where you can choose the size of your light fixture. Select the 24″ version.

Arcadia 24W 22 T5 HO 12% UVB

This is a link to Josh’s Frogs where they have proven to aggressively price their inventory. This is a 22″ T5 HO 12% UVB bulb from Arcadia.

My choice for basking bulb reflector is an 8.5″ reflector with a dimmer switch. This dimmer will allow you to dial in the bulb strength to a comfortable level at your basking branch. The dimming function is a must-have for any light I use. This particular reflector is rated for bulbs up to 150W.

This Amazon entry has multiple selections where you can choose the wattage of your basking bulb. Select the 75W version. NOTE: whenever purchasing a heat bulb verify that the reflector you are using is rated for that wattage or higher.

12 UVB in quad measure

From the picture it can be seen that, when using the feet provided with the quad bulb fixture that the lights are now 3″ above the cage and that the basking branch comes in around 8″ below the UVB light. And this is all going through screen which will filter out a significant percentage of the UVB.

12 UVB in quad fixture basking branch

We have a reading of about UVI 2.6 where the back of a basking chameleon is likely to be. You will want to adjust this to accommodate the reptile species of your choice. UVI 3 has been proven to be sufficient for vitamin D3 production for females producing eggs, with no additional dietary D3, for Panther and Veiled Chameleons. We are targeting a UV Index of between 1 and 3 for our chameleon’s exposure and this gives us our target.

12-UVB-in-quad-fixture-gradient

This reading gives us an idea of how far our target area reaches. This area size is very sufficient for an adult panther or veiled chameleon.

Rack Alternative Equipment

Use these links if you are using the wire shelving rack as I am in this example or have the ability to suspend lighting systems 4″-6″ above the cage top. The advantage of this method is that both our heat and UVB lamps put out very high levels of energy that dissipate depending on how far away you are. The closer you are to the bulb the greater the energy difference is over 1 inch. The farther away you go the more gentle the change over one inch. With more powerful lamps you get blisteringly high levels in the first few inches, but by time it gets to 8″ or 12″ you have much less difference over the 3″-4″ that we want our chameleon to bask in. With control over the height we have the lights over the cage we can use these powerful bulbs and have the excessively high energy dissipate in the 4″ – 6″ above the cage. Most importantly, we can have control over the maximum level that goes into the cage.

light placement for rack systems

This Amazon entry has multiple selections where you can choose the size of your light fixture. Select the 24″ version.

24" Single bulb reflector 6% T5

This has been my favorite single bulb reflector. It has an effective reflection and the bulb does not stick out from the bottom so when you place it on a surface the bulb is not in contact with anything or having to bear the weight of the fixture. These fixtures from LightYourReptiles.com come with a UVB bulb already.

My choice for basking bulb reflector is an 8.5″ reflector with a dimmer switch. This dimmer will allow you to dial in the bulb strength to a comfortable level at your basking branch. The dimming function is a must-have for any light I use. This particular reflector is rated for bulbs up to 150W.

This Amazon entry has multiple selections where you can choose the wattage of your basking bulb. Select the 75W version. NOTE: whenever purchasing a heat bulb verify that the reflector you are using is rated for that wattage or higher.

With this configuration I am pushing it for what will fit above the cage. This is mainly because the shelf is only 18″ wide. There are 24″ deep wire racks, but they are twice as expensive. I do use 24″ shelves, but wanted to make this work with an 18″ deep rack system for the sake of this build guide.

The distance from the top of the cage to the shelf is important. To go along with this build guide, have the shelf about 4″ above the cage.

When setting up the fluorescent fixture, remove any plastic that is covering the bulbs. This fixture has a piece of plastic that will slide out to show the lights. Remove this and throw it away. Although we are not using UVB lamps in this fixture we do not need anything blocking any light. This fixtures comes with four 6500K T5 light bulbs. Since we will be using an independent fixture for UVB we are able to use the full lighting capability of four T5 HO 6500K bulbs. Our chameleon keeping art has yet to run into the problem of having too much light on our cages. One day I am sure that will be a consideration, but, today, we use as much light as we can physically put above our cages!

The UVB fixture is pretty simple. It is a single bulb fixture with an Arcadia T5 HO 6% bulb. As UVB is a very directional light you need to have the basking branch go directly under the bulb. So put the bulb in the position that is closest to being on top of your basking branch. This, of course, takes a little planning and coordination in the build steps.

The heat bulb will simply sit and shine on the back left corner. I have basking branches there and my chameleon can stay as long as he wants!  But we will have the same tuning in of the heat that we have no matter what configuration we use.  We need to make sure the temperature is at a level where the chameleon won’t burn itself. So, once again, check the temperature that your chameleon will be exposed to by placing the back of your hand at the level that the chameleon’s back (or casque) will reach. With the dimmer switch, adjust the light output to make sure it is comfortable for your hand to be there.  Of course, if you have a thermometer you can take readings and set them for the level appropriate for your species.

MEasuring the height of UVB bulb above the basking branch

From the picture it can be seen that the lights are about 4 1/2″ above the cage and that the basking branch comes in around 9″ below the UVB light. Of course, this is going through screen which will filter out a significant percentage of the UVB. All UVI value given in this guide, unless stated otherwise, are measurements taken with the screen panel between the light and meter.

UVI 3 at basking branch

This arrangement will produce about UVI 3 where the back of a basking chameleon is likely to be. You will want to adjust this to accommodate the reptile species of your choice. UVI 3 has been proven to be sufficient for vitamin D3 production for females producing eggs, with no additional dietary D3, for Panther and Veiled Chameleons.

UVI 1.5 deep in plants

This reading was taken just to give an idea of what kind of UVB gradient this arrangement produces. I took a reading a few inches below the basking branch. This shows that any part of the basking branch is in a UVI range between 3 and 1 and this is the goal of the commonly encountered chameleon species.

Top Shelf Light Placement Guideline Summary


Placing the lights is always a strategic exercise. The guidelines to follow are

1) Daylight is placed over the front of the cage so that the light does not create a silhouette of your chameleon. Your chameleon does not care, but you will!

2) Basking Bulb is placed where it cannot accidentally slip and fall if the cage or rack is bumped.

3) Basking Bulb is kept away from anything that could catch fire.

4) Basking Bulb shines on the branch you have set up to be the basking branch.

5) Chameleons have been reported to bask in heat and then seek out the UVB light. So, although I generally put heat and UVB in the same place, having the lamps next to each other works. Some breeders have heat and UVB at opposite ends of the cage. So, you know,…party on, dudes.

6) Be mindful of where the mister is pointing. You do not want the mister to spray light bulbs.


Scheduling: Lighting, Heating, Misting

hydration cycle

When we get into the timing of lights we need to bring in the hydration cycle as the environmental conditions are all tied together.

Appliance timers are used to switch lights and equipment on and off to replicate the chameleon’s natural weather cycles. The above graph illustrates the entire cycle we wish to create. Let’s start at midnight.

Midnight: all equipment is off. No lights or heat is needed at night.

1AM: Misting system turns on for 45 seconds to create a moisture layer to help fogger “stick” instead of just bouncing off dry leaves

1AM – 7AM: Fogger runs for a 30 minute on/off schedule until 7AM. The frequency and length will be dialed in as I evaluate the need for more or less humidity during the night.

6:45AM: Mister comes on for 1 minute to throw down a layer of dew for the chameleons to wake up to.

7:00 AM Daylight and UVB bulb comes on

7:30 AM Heat Lamp comes on

10:.30AM How long the heat lamp is on is dependant on how long your chameleon needs it. In screen cages it is customary to leave the heat lamp on all day as there is no heat build up. In enclosed cages the heat lamp must be more carefully regulated as it can produce an over-heating condition. In all cases, it is best to gauge how much of the heat lamp you need by your chameleon’s behavior. Keep the heat lamp on for as long as your chameleon is showing it needs it by their basking behavior.

3PM: Optional dripper or hand mister session. Here is where I personally observe their behavior and response to water. Ideally, they ignore it. Otherwise I have to adjust my hydration cycle. This is a constant process and will never be completed.

7PM: All lights go out

8PM: 45 second misting to start the night off moist.

Misting System


Misting plants

If you are using the 4′ wide rack you have just enough room to place the misting system water reservoir in the shelf under the cage. The pump will have no problem driving the mist nozzles from the lower shelf.

I have purchased extra corners for the tubing which makes corners much easier.

Hints for misting systems:

PRESS fit. Put some force behind shoving the tubing into the connectors. If you have any leaks around the connectors, 99% of the time it is just a loose fit. Shove it in harder!
If the misting system turns on, but the water does not come out you may need to “burp” the system. Simply disconnect the output and run the pump. Once water comes out the output of the pump reconnect the tubing. This is a magic trick that works most of the time.

Note that in all these pictures the lights are on. This is so we can see. In actual use, I do not run the mister during the day. Chameleons do not like to get wet. So I use the mister during the night to lay down a layer of dew and to help the fogger raise the humidity. A cage with wet surfaces is much more receptive to fog rolling in. With out then, fog tends to just rollin and roll out. And, of course, a good spray before the lights come on ensures that the chameleons wake up to dew on the leaves.

Mister misting


Mister purchasing information

Mist King Starter Kit

1 * Single cage misting system.

Optional: 1/4″ Misting Tubing Corners

Optional, but I love being able to make a true 90 degree turn with my tubing runs! One pack of ten will more than take care of one cage. I usually use four.

input to pump from water jug beneath
output from pump to point up the side of the cage
jogging over the top of the rack
rack down to mist head.

Fogger


The fogger provides the high night time humidity that chameleons need to maintain a natural humidity cycle. A fogger is most effectively used in the dark morning hours before the sun comes up (or lights come on).

Using the rack system makes for easy placement of the foggers. I have elected to use one of the wire baskets, though it could have easily been placed ion the top of the rack. The output tubes are long and so there is great flexibility in where this has to go.

Hints for fogging:

Avoid horizontal runs of the output tubing. Keep them at a downward angle or else water will build up in the tubes and the fog will be hindered.
Put the fogging system on an external timer because the internal timer is a cheap cyclic timer and this does not give us the flexibility we need.

Note that in all these pictures the lights are on. This is so we can see. In actual use, I do not run the fogger during the day. Although I admit to enjoying seeing the fog bank when the morning lights come on slowly dissipate. But the fogger and the basking lamp are not on at the same time. Our recipe for success is cool/moist and warm/dry.


hydrating a screen cage

The fogger output tubes are aimed so that the intended sleeping area of the chameleon (the right leafy area) experiences a fog bank just after midnight.

fogger on the side of the cage

The wire rack shelf and accessory basket provide a convenient place for the foggers that us away from electronics so that filling the fogger does not accidentally get water on electrical systems.

plant hiding fogger

And, houseplants can easily hide the utilitarian nature of the wire rack and equipment!


Fogger purchasing information

1 * Fogger

This is a top filled fogger with a 4 Liter reservoir