Biology

Pregnant Jackson's Chameleon

The Jackson’s Chameleon Pregnancy

Today I talk about the pregnancy period of the Jackson’s Chameleon to help you understand the steps before the babies are born. The live bearing nature of Jackson's Chameleons can be a mystery, but there are things that we can notice. In this episode I talk about the different stages of pregnancy in the Jackson's Chameleon.

Jackson's Chameleon Pregnancy Transcript (more or less)

Today I want to talk about one of the mysterious happenings in a chameleon keeper’s life and that is live birth from a chameleon. It is mysterious because it often happens when we aren’t expecting it. The first cause is many people aren’t aware that live birth exists in chameleons. The second is that Jackson’s chameleons and other live bearing species are able to store sperm. This means that you are getting fertilization after the mating and the mating could have been long before you obtained the female. Surprise surprise!

 

There has been much attention on what to do with the babies when they are born because that is the big dramatic moment, but today I am going to focus on the 6-9 months before that and we are going to talk about the time that the female is pregnant. Now, first, terminology. In the community we often use the words pregnant and gravid interchangeably. As with all words, meanings evolve. Sometimes pregnant is used for livebirth and gravid for egg laying females, but this is not a official designation. In fact, live bearing females are doing nothing different except laying the eggs after the baby is ready to hatch. So, you can use whatever word you are comfortable with. As is always the case, when people get comfortable with a specific term and definition in their head they tend to become rigid in how they want to hear it from others so expect a certain level of confusion in the community. This conflict is can be filed in the folder of things we should not worry about but, of course, will fight to the death about because that is what humans are. So, in this episode, I choose to use the word pregnant when talking about live birth and gravid when referring to egg laying or live birth. But please understand, these subtle distinctions are my choice and not scientific convention.

 

In chameleons, gestation is a term that refers to the length of time between fertilization and egg laying. Remember that a live birth chameleon is just laying her eggs later in the process. They simply don’t calcify and are incubated within the mother’s body. So, is gestation and incubation the same for live bearing chameleons? We are having so much fun with word play and I haven’t even gotten to husbandry. So I’ll wrap this up by saying that I will refer to the time between fertilization and the birth of live babies as gestation.

 

So, let’s start with fertilization. It is common for chameleons to store sperm from one mating to be used later. It is unknown how long the sperm is good for, but it is long enough that a female could use the store of sperm a couple years later. And this comes from simple observation of how long my Jackson’s Chameleons have gone without mating and still producing babies. I do not know what an average is or what the maximum length of time is. Female live bearers have many secrets that they still keep. What we do know is that the number of eggs fertilized in clutches after the mating typically goes down.   So this probably means that the older the sperm gets the less viable they are. This has significance when you are actively breeding. There may be a short window where the female is receptive after giving birth and if you miss that she will just take matters into her own hands and fertilize herself with the results of a previous mating. So your female will go through the stresses of a reproduction cycle with less production of babies. If you are a panther chameleon breeder making a living on chameleons or just a rare species chameleon breeder you do not want your female wasting energy caring for a clutch that is half viable. On the other hand, my breeding strategy with Jackson’s Chameleons is to mate the females early in life when they are first receptive. This often around one year old, but is more dependent on size then age and depends on husbandry conditions. What this does is give me small broods of babies to care for. You see, as they get older and bigger, the female Jackson’s Chameleon will produce more babies. A first time brood could be between 8 and 12 neonates. A fully mature female once gave me 52 neonates. I actually give them one mating when they are first receptive and I let the rest of their life’s production rest on that event. I am looking for the decreased fertility to limit the brood sizes as the females gets larger. Jackson’s Chameleons are like any other chameleon in that the ideal husbandry for babies is to keep them individually. So larger broods are not always the blessing you would think! I specifically desire smaller broods because the fewer they are the easier it is to give the ideal care.

 

The first external sign that a mating has “took” or the female has started the gestation process is that she starts to get rotund around the middle. Jackson’s chameleons, particularly, have a rotund shape normally so it does take a trained eye to notice the difference in the early days. What we look for is the weight gathering closer to the tail end rather around the middle of the body. As the gestation progresses this becomes more and more obvious.

 

As the body grows outward more and more I often get the question as to how many babies she will have. This is a tricky question to answer because the same size could hold many smaller babies or fewer larger babies. So any estimate is merely an estimate. Do you see how hard it is to know everything about these chameleons even with decades of experience? Those decades of experience only shows us how little we know. The best way to be an expert is to breed Jackson’s once and then decide that is how every gestation should go! And stop there! By doing it again you will only see how different it can be! You know the old saying that a man with one watch always knows what time it is, but a man with two watches never knows what time it is? Yeah, it is the same with chameleons! This is why keepers with one chameleon can be so darn confident in what they know!

 

This is a critical time as far as nutrition. How you feed the mother during this stage dictates the health of the babies when they are born. So make sure all the nutrition bullet points are in place. These include the feeding of your feeder insects with a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and whatever the feeder insect naturally eats, if possible. What does a cricket naturally eat? What does a superworm naturally eat? How about a dubia roach? Yep, we chameleon keepers end up becoming invert husbandry nerds too! You can try pre-made diets. They represent someone’s research into what insects need. The problem is that there is so much we don’t know so there is a lot of guessing and throwing everything in there to try and hit the right combo. I have been trying Repashy Bug Burger, but how can these things be good for crickets, superworms, and dubia? How can one mix give such diverse feeder insects the nutrition they need? Well, this is all part of the research and exploration we are doing in the community. At this point, be generous in feeding your feeders. Ad I do it for 48 hours before I feed them off to make sure they had the chance to eat their fill.

 

And then there is supplementation. Dusting with calcium makes sure your chameleon is getting enough calcium. And your UVB needs to be on point. Jackson’s seem to be sensitive to the multi-vitamin powders we have in the community so we generally use low fat soluble dose powders like Repashy Calcium Plus LoD once or twice a month. If you have sufficient UVB then once a month powder dusting should be fine. That is providing the vitamin A.

Nutrition is a huge topic and one worth checking out past episodes on nutrition. But it could easily take over this episode because there is so much to talk about! So I will leave the topic of chameleon nutrition to your free time.

 

Does it seem like I am going over a mini run down of chameleon husbandry? That is because I am! You don’t take care of a gravid female any different than you would a non-gravid female. The only difference is that when they are gravid there is much less tolerance for cutting corners. And the consequences of doing so will stare you in the face when the babies are born. And since you are never sure when the female decides to start the next generation, you are just trapped into giving excellent chameleon husbandry all the time!

 

Different species have different gestation lengths. A Jackson’s Chameleon is between 6 and 9 months on average. But she can start a pregnancy when she decides conditions are right and she can delay birth if conditions take a down turn when time gets near. So, yeah, its a lot of fun making caresheets for this species.

 

As the months continue on you will see more and more of the unmistakable sign of the belly growing out to the side. You may see her actively basking her belly to provide the correct incubation. And you will notice somewhere along the way that her appetite is pretty healthy. Jackson’s females, especially the xantholophus subspecies, love their food and will even ignore the human hand to get at it. I can hold a female xantholophus on my hand and she will forget how annoyed she is with me at the sight of food on some flower. So, you will get used to a healthy appetite. And, go ahead and feed her all she wants. Once the body has decided how many babies to have the die is cast and that is your number. Feed her all the nutritious feeders she wants. It is all going to the babies.

 

Somewhere about now you need to start thinking about fruit fly cultures. It takes time to establish these and the babies will eat a lot. One of the biggest stress points for a new keeper of a clutch of baby chameleons is feeding them. And just buying a cup of fruit flies may get you a cup that will be blooming, as we call it, in a week or so. Which does no good now! The best thing is to start the fruit fly cultures now! We keepers of live bearing species never know when we are required to provide fruit flies so we have to be ready at all times. As for what do you do with mature colonies when you don’t have your babies yet? Well, that is why I advocate for chameleon people to get dart frogs in their life!

 

All well and good. But, seemingly suddenly, she stops eating. You panic because you know she is getting large and must need the calories! This is actually a warning sign that birth is likely within days. Now, I have to preface this with the following caveats.

  • Not every chameleon listens to this podcast and know what they should be doing. Each chameleon is an individual and will do what they do. Sometimes it goes against what we expect from chameleon behavior. That is just part of what we are doing here. And we need to roll with the punches. Everything that I am laying out here is what we observe over a large number of Jackson’s Chameleons. This behavior list I am describing is an average across multiple species. But that does not guarantee that yours will adhere tot his 100%
  • There are other, non-healthy reasons why a female would stop eating. So make sure her eyes and other body signals are active and

But assuming everything checks out, a female suddenly stopping her voracious eating is a sign that birth could happen in the next two or three days. During this time you have your final checklist. Lots of branches for restless climbing all over while she births the babies. A Clear bottom of the cage. Nothing that gathers water. The babies will be deposited all over and will climb all over. They can easily drown so be a stickler for water in the cage. Remove any puddle, permanent or temporary.  Babies come out in a sac which they need to break out of. Don’t have an open cup or bottle of water or fountain, or any open water available.

 

Birthing almost always takes place first thing in the morning. The female will get restless and then start dropping babies. And, by dropping babies, I mean, well, dropping babies. It almost looks like she is dropping a poop, but then you see the poop struggling. This is the baby being woken up by the birthing process and breaking out of the membrane sack it is in. The mother does her best to drop them in different places. I am guessing this is to give the babies the best chance possible by helping them disperse. Babis seem to have the same programming so if they are kept in a certain area for whatever reason (like a cage), they will look for the same things. The first thing they look for is to disperse. So, in the first hours you will see them scrambling all over the cage walls looking to get away. They aren’t trying to get away from the mother. They are trying to disperse and make it harder for predators to get more than one baby. Once they have crawled around a bit, then their priority turns to being hidden and safe and at this point they start settling inside the foliage of the cage. Do you remember those pictures of a huge clump of babies sleeping in a ball? This isn’t a social behavior. This is all of them looking for the same things to be safe and meeting the rest of their brothers and sisters that had the same programming. This happens a lot in a cage because there isn’t far they can go and so when it is time to turn in for the night, all the babies are looking for the same thing and they find it on their own. They are not worried about the mother eating them and you don’t have to worry either. You absolutely should remove them from the mother’s cage within a day or so because we don’t know how long until the mother gets hungry and resists the maternal chemical wash in her brain. I, actually, have never seen a case where the mother has eaten babies left in the cage with her. I just can’t say it is 100% safe because I do not understand the dynamics behind what is going on to suppress the mother from seeing the babies as food. Though, of course, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  The mothers that did see the babies as food did not pass on those genes so it was a self-limiting behavior!

 

Unfertilized ova

Now, during the birthing you may notice large yellowish blobs dispersed with the babies. These are unfertilized ova meaning they are eggs that were not fertilized with sperm, but was activated to go through the process anyways. I do not know how the body decides to do this or what criteria to use to determine the number. Perhaps it is actually dependent on the viability of the sperm and the female’s body did her part. Though I have seen some first broods having unfertilized ova so it is a complicated situation. All you need to know is that it is completely normal and nothing to worry about.

 

During birthing you may also notice babies not strong enough to make it out of their sac and the question always comes up as to how much you should assist them. And this is something for you to decide. How long they would survive if you help them is completely dependent on what the reason is they are having issues. For me, I choose not to help the process as not all babies are 100%. Some didn’t get enough nutrients or just plain aren’t strong enough. I have no way of knowing if that is something I could fix with proper care, but I choose to allow the birthing process to be a test of strength. Because this baby may grow up to be a breeder and I want the strongest genetics going forward. But this is a personal choice and I do not judge anyone who chooses differently. But one thing I do is I study each of the babies that are still born or weak and I try and find patterns. I assume this is something wrong in my nutrition of husbandry of the mother. While it is true that things happen that are out of our control and sometimes there are internal complications, I, by default, assume it is something in husbandry because that is the only thing I can change. I like things that are my fault because that means I can change the outcome next time.  So you’ll find I actually hope it was something I did wrong. Anyways, You’ll get live babies running around, bright yellow unfertilized ova on the ground, and weak or stillborn babies still in their sacks. You could get any of these, all of these, or just a bunch of babies running around!

 

The entire process will last a couple hours. She will drop one, move over, drop another, move over, and drop another. During this time she will take rest periods. You are welcome to remove babies during these rest periods, though be as non-intrusive as possible. Remove the babies at your leisure and when it is not disruptive to the birthing process. As I said, I have yet to see a mother eat a baby so I feel comfortable saying you can not worry about it. Of course, someone somewhere will have a story that contradicts me. But, amongst the circle of breeders I hang out with, their experience matches mine that we have not yet seen the babies being eaten.

 

The babies should be removed and, ideally, placed in individual cages. I realize that this is only starting to take hold as a breeder practice, but it is the best way and so I will continue to talk about it! Give the babies food ad libitum. Let them gorge themselves and grow as fast as they can.

 

Now, let’s circle back to the mother. She has been through a whole lot! Once the babies are removed and she is done with her ordeal then provide her with food and water and let her rest. You will know when she is done when she isn’t restless anymore and her rest period takes longer than usual. She has done quite a bit! Now you need to pamper her! You can feed her as much as she will eat for that first week after. Let her replenish her strength. So much of her inside body cavity was taken up by these babies so her stomach may react with a vengeance once it figures out it has all that space now. But you’ll get a feel for the situation as to when you should taper off the food. Jackson’s Chameleons are not as prone to overfeeding as Veiled Chameleons, but, even though the incidences are much fewer, it is still part of what we need to manage to be able to keep them in prime condition. Jackson’s are prone to gout, edema, and being over-weight so we need to e on top of our game here and not just give them what we think they want. Yes, I know they are irresistibly cute and you want to give them everything they ask for. But resist for their sake!

 

Conclusion

I have had females immediately go into another pregnancy and have babies six months later. The thing is that once you get the ball rolling with one mating, her body will then go on autopilot. In fact, you won’t be able to stop it. So, it becomes a normal part of keeping a female Jackson’s chameleons if she has ever had time with a male. That is just an aspect of keeping Jackson’s Chameleons that we need to understand and accept.

 

The live birth aspect of Jackson’s Chameleons is amazing and, if you are ready for it, one of the coolest things. If you are not ready for it it can be one of the most panic inducing things! And, Jackson’s Chameleons are not the only live bearing chameleon species. Presently available in the trade, Trioceros ellioti and Trioceros hoehneli are also live bearing. Should Tanzania ever export again you will see many other live bearing species.

 

Sign off

Through this podcast I hope you have been able to learn some of the signs of a gravid live bearing chameleon. And you can now be more confident as to what is going on inside the cage. Sometimes these behaviors can be confusing. But that is just part of what we take on when we step foot into this intricate world.

Thank you for joining me here

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Jackson's Chameleon

Ep 215: Using Wild Conditions in Chameleon Husbandry

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Those of us dedicated to the art of chameleon husbandry have recreating the ideal conditions as our primary goal. Determining ideal conditions starts with understanding the wild conditions our chameleon species developed within. But then it must be translated into an execution in our captive environment. Today I talk about how we extract ideal conditions from wild environmental data and what the limitations of doing that are.

Transcript (More or Less)

Hello Chameleon Wranglers! Today we are going to look at the process of sifting through all the wild environmental data from our chameleon’s home region to figure out what we should put on our care sheets. And we are also going to go head to head with the fact that there comes a time when we have to do further study within our captive environment. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what I mean by that in this podcast.

 

The Chameleon’s Original Environment: Our Most Valuable Reference.

It will come as a surprise to no one that the chameleon’s original environment, where they spent millions of years adapting to, and becoming dependent upon, certain conditions becomes the foundation of determining the ideal husbandry. But there is some extraction and analysis that we are required to perform. We are simply not able to recreate the wild conditions in their entirety. Not only do the weather patterns constantly change, the chameleon changes its position within those constantly variable conditions. So just determining what those perfect conditions are is immensely complicated because you have to understand all the micro-climates that a chameleon has access to.

For a very basic and simple example. It may be 95 degrees F outside at the weather station taking the data. But our intrepid chameleon has retreated back into the dense shade where it can be downright cool. I think it is obvious that the weather station data is of limited value. The data taken where the chameleon is throughout the day is much more valuable, and much less accessible. Even viewing the chameleon basking in 95 degree weather is not evidence that we should be giving them a 95 degree basking point or that ambient temperature should be anywhere near that. The ability to retreat into dense shade makes deadly temperatures just part of the every day life experience.

This is why the larger the cage you make it, and the more microclimates you can create, the more swings in ambient temperature your chameleon can handle. By restricting our chameleon from roaming far and wide we drastically cut down on his available options to regulate his comfort. It is important to know that if you go back to the home country which should have perfect conditions and put a chameleon in a cage out in the sun you will most likely kill it. Because, even the home conditions are not ideal. There will be unbearably hot days and extended dry seasons that will kill chameleons. So there is no such thing as ideal conditions in the wild. There is a fluctuation of conditions which, on the average allow the chameleon to find microclimates to sustain himself. So, what does this mean for us? Is there such thing as ideal conditions? And how can we figure out what those ideal conditions are?

 

Is there such thing as ideal conditions? The answer is yes. There is. Or at least, there are a set of conditions that we can recreate in captivity that are a close enough approximation to ideal. And we continue to refine these conditions the more we learn. Our measuring stick is vitality and longevity. When you hear people talk about male panther or veiled chameleons having a four year lifespan you know that the overall husbandry conditions were not ideal. But there was a time when this was an achievement. Today, seven years can be reasonably expected and ten years is for congratulations. But I am hearing reports of panthers and veileds that are living beyond ten years so we still have a lot of work to do! The goal is to bring ten year lifespans to the mainstream. This is why my care summaries on the Chameleon Academy website change every year or every time I learn a nuance or better way of describing a husbandry technique. It is because they are living documents. And they will be until the combination of environmental and dietary conditions have been hammered down enough that a ten year longevity is routine if you follow the care summary.

 

How do we determine ideal conditions?

Getting information from the field is critical to start us in the right direction. But we must then start testing. We throw out the extremes because it isn’t a stretch to know that those are in the tolerance zone. We look at the averages and start with those. The thing is that we don’t always get it right to begin with. In fact, all you old timers, raise your hand if you specifically kept your Jackson’s Chameleon from getting too cold at night. Where cold is in the 60s? Yep, I was part of the generation that put together the care sheets you have now through our mistakes.

So, that begs the question. If it is so easy to go off in the wrong direction, how do we determine what the ideal conditions are? And here it comes back to testing. We take the conditions we think are the ones we want to try and we try them. If the chameleons live long and healthy we have a data point that says these conditions are valid for X years of life. And then you or other people tweak those parameters and either they get better or worse or the same results. Okay, another data point. Because we are trying to figure out conditions that are average and will work for the most number of keepers we have to repeat this test over many individuals and over generations. This is not usually something a single breeder can pull off! This is a community efforts over years and decades. This is why it takes a great deal of time to come up with care sheet parameters. And this is a core reason why I started this podcast in the first place. I wanted to gather the experiences of people from around the world.

 

Captivity is different

In this exploration, we have to understand that we will be experimenting with things that go beyond wild conditions.

Even though the wild conditions are our gold standard there is only so far they can take us before we need to stop talking about them and bring them back to the vivarium to figure out how they relate to our situation. As an example, let’s circle back around to our good friend UVB.

How much do chameleons need? How is it connected to heat? How much do chameleons seek out UVB when it is separated from a heat source? How accurate can the chameleon gauge how much UVB they need? You would think that their body would have figured it out after all this time, but we have really messed that up with changing everything on them. We have taken the sun, split it into three separate lights and created heat and UVB gradients that they can move in and out of within inches on their basking branch. This is not natural so any natural gauge their body has now has to adjust to light sources that have different spectrums and intensities. We see this with heat bulbs. Chameleons will sit under heat bulbs that are too hot and burn themselves. And they will continue to do it. So there is something that is messing with their sense of self-preservation that works perfectly out in the wild. So, it is logical that we should consider that there may be similar issues with UVB. We don’t know. Maybe the spectrum of our lamps happens to correspond perfectly with what the chameleon’s body is looking for. Maybe the body is an excellent judge of vitamin D3 levels in the blood. We do not know and we need to be open to all possibilities.

 

Scientific papers give excellent insight, but because chameleons have their own mind and we have no idea why they choose to do what they do, we as hobbyists need to figure out how to implement the findings in our environments. When scientific papers are written regarding UVB or vitamin D3 these chameleons are forced into situations which remove as many variables as possible. So, figuring out how much D3 a chameleon needs to be healthy by orally dosing them with measured vitamin D3 may produce a number, but how useful is that when we, in the real world, are using powders of vitamin D3 and vitamin A which are dusted on insects. Powder is lost, the effects of the vitamins are different because they are given together, and the composition of the feeder insect may or may not change the outcome. So, once the scientists are done with their controlled experiments and extrapolations we have a lot of work to do on our end to figure out what it means in the real world of much larger cages.

Figuring out how chameleon behavior dictates the conditions we give them is a whole discipline in itself.

Do you want to see this happening in real time? I’ll let you in on something that will be changing in the coming years as far as husbandry. You will start to hear more about UVB doses. A UVB dose is the intensity of UVB, or the UV Index, multiplied by the length of time the light is given. So, if you use UVI 3 for 12 hours you have a UVB dose of 36. But the chameleon does not use the UVB light for all 12 hours. So, it is reasonable to have the UVB light on for only…what, 4 hours? 2 hours? I don’t know, but something less than 12. So, will a UVB dose of 12 instead of 36 give the same results? Is UVI 3 for four hours the same as UVI 4 for three hours? Presumably, there is a lower limit to where the UV Index just doesn’t energize the D3 synthesis any more. And we know we don’t want to give UVI 12 for one hour because UVB damages skin and organs. So there is going to be a working range of levels and lengths of time exposure.

The reason why you haven’t heard much about the concept of dose on this podcast is because it was an enormous effort to determine that UVI 3 over 12 hours was sufficient for Veileds and panthers. Adding the variable of time, in other words, changing the length of time instead of having it fixed, would have made it difficult to establish UVI 3 as a landmark. But now it is time to explore further. The next step is dose. Dr. Gary Ferguson’s latest scientific paper on chameleons experiments with different doses of UVB. One of Petr Necas’ YouTube videos on UVB speaks of a breeder in Europe who has experimented with doses in his colony. So the concept will continue to gain momentum. Expect it to be challenged as any new idea is, and should be, but there it is. You have a front row seat to the development of a new idea. And, yes, the caresheets of five years from now on the Chameleon Academy will be different. Because this is a good idea and I am going to work with it. It will be years before you start seeing this on the Chameleon Academy because it will take that long to lay down some guidelines that I could feel comfortable sharing with others to try. I am raising up my panther chameleon breeding group and, when they hatch, I will work with different values. I’ll work with females because my standard is the ability to lay completely calcified clutches of eggs with no dietary D3. If anyone out there wants to work on this before I have my group in place you are welcome to reach out to me and work with me on this. I know the key to solid reliable information is the patience to do it right. But I encourage those who are interested in such things and in a position to experiment now to go for it. I mean, once I come up with something it is only a data point until others reproduce it. So, I don’t mind being the one to reproduce your initial data. That will save time. We’ll need a handful of experimenters before we can be confident enough to put it in care sheets. Anyway, have fun watching the introduction of a new idea into the community! It is always a fun thing.

Now, I’d like to address two special cases. Both Veiled Chameleons and Jackson’s Chameleons have established populations outside of the natural range. And since both their natural ranges are either difficult or life threatening to visit, the idea is often floated to study them in their introduced ranges. This is not reliable, but it takes a little explaining as to why this is so it is worth spending the time on this now.

First, let’s talk about the Veiled Chameleon.

Example: Veiled Chameleon. Even just five years ago, the prevailing thought was that Veileds were harsh, arid conditions. High heat and high UVB. I spent years trying to find an eye witness to ask them what it was really like and when I finally did, I found a completely different story that ruined what I thought. It wasn’t harsh at all. It was actually a lush oasis. What I found, and you can follow my journey on this podcast because I published my entire exploration, is that they hatched at the beginning of the rainy season in valleys in the mountains which sprang to life with vegetation. They hid during the day’s sun. And in these mountain mountainous regions they experienced fog banks in the morning, mild temperatures, and cool nights.

Is this report of Veiled Chameleon environment 100% the best we will ever have? I don’t know. Maybe when the civil war in Yemen is over, more of us can visit the area and our understanding will improve. We will either confirm what we have heard from Petr Necas, Martin Wendche, and Petko Dvorak, my three eye witnesses to Veiled Chameleon’s in the wild, or we will discover a deeper understanding with more eyes and minds on the ground. But, the fact is, that these three eye witness accounts in Yemen are the best source of information I have right now.

But what about Veiled Chameleon’s in Florida? They have naturalized there so can’t we just study where they are in Florida and study those parameters? The answer is not really. We can learn more about their tolerance range. Meaning, the range of conditions they can adapt to. They, like any living being, can adapt to, reproduce, and survive various ranges of conditions. But there is a huge difference between what they can make a living within and what is ideal. Their home range is the standard. They have spent history evolving within those conditions. Some they develop the ability to tolerate and some they develop a dependance on. Which is which is our ongoing challenge to discern. Veiled Chameleons in Florida or Jackson’s Chameleons in Hawaii are examples of chameleons finding areas that are within their tolerance zone and they are able to reproduce, which is the driving force of all living animals.

So why can’t we use Florida conditions for Veiled and Hawaii conditions for Jackson’s? Well, you may or may not be providing optimal husbandry.

You see, in captivity we drastically reduce the options available to our chameleons. In the wild they have a myriad of microclimates to choose from. The weather station may say 95 degrees, but the chances are that the Jackson’s in the area has nestled himself in the deep shade. Looking at the thermometer as you drive or hike by the area where chameleons live is a deceptive analysis. You need to take the measurement from where the chameleon actually is. But, you say, you saw a chameleon basking in 100 degree weather! Okay, but how long did he stay basking in 100 degree weather? In the wild they have full autonomy to stay however long they wish and find a cool place to spend the rest of the day 30 seconds after you leave the area.

But in our home cage of 2x2x4 we drastically restrict their options. Yes, I talk about gradients and how we need to give our chameleons choices. But, even with the best we can do, what we can offer them is a sliver of a shadow of what they have available to them in the wild. So, this is why we are so obsessed with figuring out what the ideal conditions are. If our chameleon is only going to have a handful of conditions to choose from we are going to make those as ideal as possible. We want the absolute best conditions we can create. And these conditions are within our power. Why, in the world, would we settle for conditions in their tolerance zone instead of the ideal conditions?

This is why Jackson’s Chameleon keepers model their captive conditions off of the home turf of Kenya. This is why Veiled keepers study Yemen instead of Florida. We are certainly interested in their adaptations, but shouldn’t adjust care guidelines to adaptations.

So, let’s talk Jackson’s Chameleons.

The ideal conditions for Jackson’s Chameleons have been a focus for us due to the number of people who have been unsuccessful in keeping them long term. We always had information for their home range in Kenya, but we had work to do to figure out what were the important keys to keep them alive long term. To determine the idealized conditions, we start with what is measured in their home range and then do a great deal of trial and error. This, of course, takes years and years to pull out patterns. And we, as a collective community, have found that the most effective ways to increase lifespan in captivity are 1) Include a deep nighttime drop and 2) to keep them individually. When these two parameters are included in husbandry the death rate drops significantly.

This is why someone pointing out that the weather station in Hawaii, their introduced location, doesn’t go below the mid-70s is not a compelling argument to ignore the generations of experience we have had in captivity comparing longevity of chameleons with and without nighttime drops. Unfortunately, the effects of a nighttime drop are not easy to detect. It must be done over time and over many chameleons. Because a warm night does not kill a chameleon. It just exhausts them a little just like when we do not get a good night’s sleep. We don’t drop dead. But the effect is cumulative. Just like our personality after one bad night’s sleep vs. our personality after an entire week of not sleeping well. So, the minor effects of a bad sleep slowly build. And then a couple nights of a deep sleep will reverse the trend. So this experiment is very difficult to run. And this is why we don’t consider a chameleon staying alive for six months with no deliberate nighttime drops as evidence that nighttime drops aren’t necessary. We have years and generations of general consensus amongst experienced breeders that noticeable nighttime drops positively affect Jackson’s Chameleon health. I know it is difficult to produce a nighttime drop. I have to do it with a A/C wall unit. But we are not telling you to give nighttime drops out of some powerplay. That is just what we, the Jackson’s breeding community, have found works the best.

Now, the question will, inevitably come up, shouldn’t Hawaiian Jackson’s have evolved to the different weather conditions by now? Shouldn’t we use Hawaiian data for Hawaiian jackson’s?

This is a valid question and one we have to consider. Animals adapt to different conditions. Within every group of babies there is a variation in many aspects. Some are going to be less fearful of humans and some will be able to handle warmer conditions. Some will be larger, some more colorful, etc… If any of these traits make that individual more likely to breed over their siblings, then the offspring will have more of a chance to have that trait. Repeat this over multiple generations and you have a locale of animals that are adapted to different conditions. It is not a huge leap to consider that the ability to thrive without the nighttime drops would make some babies stronger than others. So, should we treat Hawaiian Jackson’s Chameleons different than Kenyan Jackson’s? It is an interesting idea. All it needs is evidence. At this time, we have evidence that this is not the case simply in the fact that all of this effort we, in the community, are spending to try and figure out how to keep them from dying comes, at least in the US, from working with Jackson’s from Hawaii. And we have found that when kept in captivity, a noticeable nighttime drop increases longevity. So we have already been testing with the Hawaiian population and they have not developed this change – as far as we can tell. It is always possible for this to arise. So those working with Jackson’s in Hawaii are encouraged to keep looking out for it. But you have to test in controlled conditions that other can recreate for it to start to compete with the conclusions we presently have after working with Hawaiian Jackson’s.

Conclusion.

Our goal in refining our art of captive husbandry rests on replicating the natural world that chameleons live in as closely as possible. But there will be compromises that will need to be intelligently made. Since we are providing those conditions with artificial means we will have to adjust the best way to use our lighting and misting and fogging tools within the context of the environment we create. Does this mean the basking bulb and UVB bulb are turned on for different lengths of time? Does this mean we use solid sides instead of screen? The questions go on and on. And, this is our job as caretakers of the body of chameleon husbandry knowledge. To expand and constantly challenge.

If you enjoyed this podcast I invite you to check out the chameleon academy channel on YouTube where you will see my bright shiny face, get to meet Yvette, my gecko obsessed partner in life, and get to regularly commune with my chameleons. Thank you for joining me here. I’ll see you next time!


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Veiled Chameleon

Chameleon UVB: How Much UVB Do Chameleons Need?

Introduction to the Chameleon Caresheet Question Series

One of the more confusing things in the chameleon community is when advice doesn’t line up and experts disagree. What do you do when you are just trying to figure out what to do for your first set up? Whenever I update a care summary there is always feedback from people who see something that appears to be different from what they have been told already. And this is confusing to them. And, rightfully so! It would be great if all the experts agreed on care parameters and just stuck to one thing! Reality is so much more fuzzy. Care parameters presented are not always well thought out and there may be different perspective on others. So it may be that the different care sheet parameters are not as in conflict as they first appear!

So I am going to be focusing on a number of care parameters in the Chameleon Academy Care Summaries that you may find are different from what you see running around the great digital world out there.

 

Chameleon Caresheet Parameter: UVB Levels

UVB is light that is outside our vision, but is critical for both our and our chameleons’ life. It is the energy that our bodies use to synthesize D3 which, in turn, allows us to absorb calcium. Without this we cannot build strong skeletons and the lack of calcium eventually leads to death. The question then becomes obvious – how much UVB does a chameleon need?

UVB for Panther Chameleons

There have been a number of attempts to determine the UVB needs of chameleons by scientists and serious hobbyists. The Ferguson zones have become a standard in the reptile world. The Ferguson Zones are a collection of charts that indicate the calculated UV Index levels that each reptile species needs considering their habitat and habits. This has served as an invaluable base for us to continue work from. And we in the chameleon community have continued that work. We have tested the effects of certain UV Index levels over the breeding lifecycle of both Veiled and Panther chameleons. Using the benchmark of females needing to calcify an entire clutch of eggs as our golden test, breeders have determined that 12 hour exposure availability to UV Index 3 produces completely calcified clutches of eggs. Note this only has shown that UVI 3 is an effective level. Further work needs to be done to determine if this level is actually higher than necessary or if 12 hour exposure is longer than necessary. In these tests, the chameleons were allowed to regulate their exposure on their own so we do know that UVI 3 over 12 hours is beyond what is necessary. It is an exciting time that we have discovered this much and that there is so much more to discover in our reach!

Although UVI 3 has been determined for Panthers and Veileds, there is still much work to be done to determine the target UVI for every other species. High altitude species such as Trioceros hoehnelii seem to want higher levels of UVB and lower altitude species such as Trioceros cristatus prefer lower levels. Preference will be a function of altitude as well as what level in the forest the chameleon inhabits. So each species is an opportunity for discovery!

Conclusion

Once the required UVI level has been determined the next major question is how to implement UVI 3 with the myriad of bulb and fixture options available. The Chameleon Academy Care Summaries are unique in that they specifically show one scenario that will work. They pick one fixture and bulb and shows the distance they need to be. You can use most any other combination of fixtures and bulbs if you have a UVB meter to dial it in. The determination of UVI 3 as a successful level should be taken not as the final word. It is only the first stab. We know it is effective for Veileds and panthers. But we do not know if lower levels would be just as effective. And this is worth figuring out as if we can use less energy to get the same job done it is worth it. Once the chameleon is done manufacturing D3 it goes into UVB blocking mode. If we can give them effective UVB exposure and also remove the excessive UVB that is simply wasted then we are on the right path to optimizing our chameleon husbandry.

Back to the Chameleon Caresheet Question Hub!

Click here to go back to the central Chameleon Caresheet Hub to review more care sheet questions.

Female Ambanja Panther Chameleon

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Plants and chameleons

Ep 167: Plant Keeping Basics with Bonnie Person

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When you look at my social media accounts you will see many pictures of lushly planted chameleon cages. But I went through a long education about plants and how to take care of them to be able to do that. And I am finding I still have some basic questions so I can be better at what I do. And what do you do when you have questions? You ask an expert! And even if you think you have some advanced skills, often the best place to start is at the beginning. So that is what I have done. Bonnie Person runs Verdant Vivariums which is a greenhouse that serves the reptile community with exotic plants. She would know the context from which I ask these questions. And I go to the ground floor with my questions. So if you want to figure out why you can’t eve keep pothos alive or just want a better grasp on plants in general then sit back, relax, and enjoy this interview about the basics of plant care!

 


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green tree python

Ep 163: Green Tree Python Husbandry Pt 2. with Patrick Holmes

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Good morning Chameleon Wranglers! We have been spending the last couple weeks studying the Green Tree Python. This final week we wrap it up by me asking Patrick Holmes to lead us through the steps for us to get started with this beautiful snake. One of the most interesting things about this interview, from a high level, was seeing the parallels between our communities.  You listen in you will hear some very familiar statements. Because they are the truth in all of our communities. Things like investing upfront in the genetics and health of the animal and proper set-up or else you will be investing that saved money in vet bills on the backside. Or else there being a distinct difference between stress spikes and chronic stress. Hmmm, are we seeing the dynamic of convergent evolution at play?

I invite you to listen in and enjoy the conclusion of our study into the Green Tree Python with Patrick Holmes.

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Green Tree Python husbandry

Ep 162: Green Tree Python Husbandry Pt 1. with Patrick Holmes

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Good morning, Chameleon Wranglers! Last week we were joined by Patrick Holmes for an introduction to the Green Tree Python. Today we start in on the husbandry talk. We will actually have two episodes worth of husbandry information. The reason for this is that we are not just listing off parameters for us to blindly follow. Patrick is one of those who values you knowing why he says what he says, and thinks it is important that we acknowledge other methods. Sound familiar? So, even if you never plan on getting a green tree python, the approach you are about to hear deals with issues we face no matter what reptile we keep. This is very much about the compromises and decisions we are faced with when we strive to recreate a natural environment with unnatural equipment on the other side of the Earth.

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Green Tree Pythons

Ep 161: Green Tree Pythons with Patrick Holmes

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Welcome to this episode of the Outer Fringes. I must say that this episode has been hotly anticipated. Green Tree Pythons fit the bill as an arboreal reptile with a dedicated community that surrounds it. This is important to us because they have studied there reptile as deeply as we have studied ours and we can both benefit from each other’s efforts. And, if there is one snake that would be a natural transition for us, Green Tree Pythons, (or their boa counterpart, the Emerald Tree), would be top of the list for many of us!

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Nepenthes and chameleons

Ep 160: Nepenthes Tropical Pitcher Plants with Jeremiah Harris

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The Nepenthes Tropical Pitcher plants are one of the most striking plants we can include in our chameleon environments. Their leaves sport ornate carnivorous pitchers at the ends and they add a flash of adventure to our plantscape. With me is Jeremiah Harris to share his expertise in this exciting genus!

Thoughts from the podcaster :)

Chameleon owners have long been fascinating by the Nepenthes tropical pitcher plant. Though there wasn’t much overlap between the two hobbies mainly because screen cages and our selected temperature ranges for chameleons weren’t a perfect match. But with the increased awareness and execution of naturalistic hydration cycles, solid side cage, and a little help from Nepenthes hybridizers, these carnivores are now hardy in our cage environmental ranges and easily found online or public nurseries. As we shift our focus from just caging. Chameleon to creating a sanctuary environment which includes a chameleon we are expanding our focus to include interesting plants. And, Nepenthes certainly are at the top of those charts!

To introduce us to Nepenthes, Jeremiah Harris, a lifelong carnivorous plant enthusiast joins me. His greenhouses are things of wonder and just looking through his social media accounts, which are linked to in the show notes, you can imagine getting lost for days just peering into all the nooks and crannies, so to speak. So I am going to bring him on and we are going to hear all about these fascinating plants from a man who loves his plants like we love our chameleons!

Well, it is time for me to expand some species in my chameleon environments! Now, I want to address the most common question once more.

Nepenthes send out long leaves that develop literal pitchers at the end. These pitchers contain liquid which digests insects, or any other animal that falls in. Now, the initial response from chameleon keepers is to ask why you would include a plant in the cage that will eat your chameleon. The answer is that we wouldn’t. If you get good enough raising up your nepenthes that it produces pitchers actually big enough to trap your chameleon then you are quite accomplished and, hopefully, have the common sense to remove one of the two from the cage. If the chameleon can fit in the pitcher then you have an issue. Although chameleons would not be attracted to the sweet liquid like insects and mammals I really don’t want to get an email from someone who put a baby chameleon in with a mature Nepenthes 'Miranda' and then one day couldn’t find their chameleon. For almost all cases, you will be fine, but discernment is required.

If the theme of this podcast of creating beautiful vibrant, living environments for your chameleons resonates with you then take a look at adding a Nepenthes. They are sold as Monkey Cups at home improvement stores so they are easy to get a hold of. Humidity is the biggest challenge in areas that are dry. But if you are embracing the naturalistic hydration cycles you have what you need to keep these common hybrids happy. They were developed to be hardier at easy to reproduce conditions! So that is right up our alley.

I highly recommend following Jeremiah on social media. If nothing else, just to be exposed to the rich variety of pitchers in Nepenthes. Like chameleons and all of these outer fringes, there is enough diversity that you spend your life studying them and getting to know the characteristics of each species. Check the show notes for those links!

Thank you for joining Jeremiah and me here today! What I would really love is for you to tag me and Jeremiah on cages that you add Nepenthes to! They may take some skill to get them in the area of your cage that has just the right microclimate, but this is the fun of what we do. I look forward to seeing the results!

So, go out into the chameleon world and make some gorgeous environments that make people’s jaws drop even before they see the chameleon!

N. bongso 900x1200S

Nepenthes bongo

Holding a N. truncata x ephippiata 900x1200s

Holding a Nepenthes truncata x ephippiata

Nepenthes edwardsiana

Nepenthes edwardsiana

Nepenthes veitchii

Nepenthes veitchii

N. veitchii ‘Geoff Wong’

Nepenthes veitchii ‘Geoff Wong’

Nepenthes edwardsiana

Nepenthes hamata

Nepenthes truncata 900x1200

Nepenthes truncata

Nepenthes veitchii K

Nepenthes veitchii K

Nepenthes veitchii x boschiana

Nepenthes veitchii x boschiana

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Chameleon sleeping

Ep 159: Nighttime Temperature Drops with Petr Necas

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Nighttime drops are an important part of chameleon husbandry. Today, I talk with Petr Necas about understanding why they are important and what they mean for us providing the best captive care possible.

Final thoughts

Nighttime drops are tricky because they aren’t always easy for us to provide. Many of us live far from the equator and so our temperatures are either too hot or too cold through much of the year. Without a temperature controlled reptile room our base environmental conditions to work from are the house ambient conditions. Those do not always offer a nice 15-20 degree F drop at night. This clashes with our love for montane chameleons. Our most common Jackson’s chameleon, the xantholophus, or yellow-crested Jackson’s, start in above 1500 meters in elevation and Veiled Chameleons are higher up at around 2000 meters. Although we are proud of ourselves with keeping a chameleon for four to five years of age, that is an achievement only when compared to the woefully short captive lifespans of the 1900s. But we should be shooting for lifespans of 7 years, ten years, or even greater. And this takes a different mindset. To realize our chameleon’s full lifetime potential we need to be smart about what we accept as proper husbandry. And this is difficult. If panther chameleon babies routinely and conveniently accept being raised in groups and the effects on them are not measured in the first six months, but in the last years of their life then how do you prove this to a community that places a high value on efficiency of production? If we want a veiled chameleon, but do not want to put in an air conditioning unit that gets their nighttime sleep into the 50s F then it is much easier to listen to the multitude of voices saying they never gave their veileds a nighttime drop and their’s lived just fine – and you find out that their’s lived just fine for a full four years then you start to see how all of the compromises of conditions that we accept and we justify with the phrase “and they are doing just fine” are really shortening their lives. But this exercise is futile directed at other people because you will not be able to put a finger on the effects. All of this is cumulative and proof of longevity is a ten + year project. No, the most effective way to explore longevity is to turn the light on yourself and dive into each and every aspect of your own husbandry. Don’t waste time chiding people on social media. Use that energy to refine your own husbandry. Your long lived chameleons will be the undeniable proof of your methods. And before you go thinking I am telling you all what you should do, I produce a show that drives our chameleon husbandry forward. It is my job to explore and present the best we know and the mindset we need to have. But this is all a message to me as well. I would not be doing my job if I waiting until I had all my husbandry dialed in before I presented this information. I am struggling with the same things you are and to live up to what I passionately present here. I just moved and my entire hydration cycle has been knocked out of whack. I am still working on getting all the fogging set back up. But that doesn’t mean I excuse it by saying “oh, they are doing just fine, I guess it isn’t that important.” No, I know I better get that back up because there is only a certain amount of buffer time I have before I will see the effects at the end of their lives. And it is my responsibility to present the best information whether I am living up to it or not. Obviously, it would be a ridiculous for me to go through all the work putting together this show and not following what is presented so, I guarantee you I am implementing what we have here. But I just want you to know that me passionately saying that chameleon’s need a nighttime drop does not mean that I do not understand the struggle of providing it. I struggle with living in a hot, dry climate. Just like other people struggle with being in a cold climate that, during summer, literally does not have a nighttime. And you thought your problems were bad? We all have challenges based on our situation. So none of this is preaching. On this show my roles switch between being the information summarizer, the voice of the listener asking the questions on everyone’s mind, and the presenter. But, off microphone, I am a hobbyist trying to bend my conditions for chameleon longevity just like you.

One important part of the interview was when we discussed how the wild is different from captivity. This is particularly relevant when entering into the discussion about introduced populations. I am regularly challenged when I say Jackson’s Chameleons need cool daytime temperatures and a nighttime drop by people pointing to the population on Hawaii. To this I say that we are already challenged when we try to create a natural environment in a small space. There are already compromises we cannot avoid. We do not have an entire tree and forest’s worth of microclimates to offer. We want to be as natural as possible, but without all the exposure and hiding options we do not want to replicate the temperature highs or the afternoon UVB intensities. Hawaii is not their home. It is in their tolerance range and they have adapted as best as they can. They have done a good job of it. But don’t use that Hawaii for Jackson’s or Florida for Veileds and panthers to argue proper husbandry. It is merely showing their tolerance range and, as I have said, they have many more options in the wild to hide away from the conditions you think they are “fine with”.

If you are interested in learning more about Petr and his work with chameleons check out his website chameleons.info. of particular value are his experiences with Chamaeleo calyptratus as he is one of the few people who has visited their natural home range in Yemen. To get a deep dive on that information you can visit his website or listen to my multi-episode interview with him regarding the Veiled Chameleon starting with episode 86.

In captivity, we are striving for providing the best care possible for our reptilian friends. With all the compromises we take on, we must stack the advantages up the most we can. And we do have some powerful tools on our side. We offer a predator and parasite free life. We offer consistent and, hopefully, nutritious food. Medical care is there the second they need it. So the name of the game is to offer way more benefits than compromises. And we are doing a good job of that as we see lifespans creeping higher and higher. We are on the right track and we are making progress. The deep and rejuvenating rest provided by a nighttime temperature drop is a valuable tool in our mission stack the odds in the favor of a long chameleon life.

Links for more work from Petr Necas

Chameleons.info is a website blog where Petr shares his world travelling experiences with chameleons. This is a valuable exposure to the wild conditions of chameleons.

 

Petr Necas
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Jackson's Chameleon

Ep 158: Chameleon Health Points

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Chameleon husbandry is made up of many aspects including environmental conditions, nutrition, and emotional security. Everything we do that gets our husbandry closer to the optimal conditions strengthens our chameleon. Everything we do that is off weakens our chameleon. Today I talk about the cumulative effects of stress and how we should look at each one of these husbandry parameters.

Transcript (More or Less)

Chameleon husbandry is made up of many, many interlocking pieces from lighting, heat, air circulation, nutrition, hydration, emotional health, and the list gets quite lengthy when you start getting more detailed. And it isn’t just getting the individual values right, it is getting the values right in balance with the other values being right at the right time in the day and life. Wow, with such restrictions, how, in the world, can a chameleon survive in the wild?

Well, because they were not just thrown into the wild. They evolved within those wild conditions. And they grew to both work with and rely on those natural conditions. They have their instincts set up to allow them to negotiate within certain ranges of conditions and to move their bodies to fine tune their life experience.

The reason why they got the reputation of being delicate was that we took them out of this system they were optimized for and plopped them into completely foreign conditions and are requiring both their bodies and their behavior to adjust to and work within something completely different.

And it is our job to try and match the cage conditions as close as possible to the natural conditions they are built for. We start with a macro understanding of the home environment, meaning the weather patterns taken from some weather station somewhere in the general geographical vicinity and try to apply that to our cages. But they live in a rich network of microclimates and while the weather station may read 90 degrees F, the chameleon may be hiding deep in the shade where it is cooler. And they certainly do not bask at mid-afternoon UVB levels, so we rely on people who can relate the chameleon’s behavior first hand so we can extract what the chameleon may be using and what it may be escaping as far as the environment.  Temperature, humidity, UVB, nutrition, security,….

Your chameleon’s health is the sum of all these values. If they have a cold night and get deep sleep then they get five health points. If the humidity was low during the night and they got dehydrated they lose three health points. If water is provided to them in the morning they gain two health points, but not the full three because they went through the dehydration. They see a chameleon in their cage and the chameleon is bigger than they are and is blocking their way to the feeder bowl and they lose five points in stress. The last feeder left that they did snag was well fed and powdered with calcium and that gives them a positive point. The UVB bulb gives them UVB, but is very high level so 2 points for getting vitamin D, but losing a point for the body being stressed from defending against the intensity. And it goes on and on. Points given for conditions that match their ideal and points removed for things that don’t. Of course, this plays out every day in the wild, but, remember, in the wild they are under conditions that they have adapted to. We remove predators and parasites, but give them air conditioned air and a heat lamp in place of the sun. We give them all the vitamins and minerals we can think to throw at the wall, but we give them in amounts and balances that may or may not require the body to work overtime to process. So the point is that each one of these husbandry aspects adds or subtracts from your chameleon’s health. When our chameleon gets sick, sure, it can be because of one overwhelming thing such as a temperature spike into triple digits or being left in the direct sun for a couple hours.  But think of how many times you have seen bacterial infections. Bacteria are all around us and the chameleon’s immune system is constantly fighting it off. A bacterial infection occurs when something happens which weakens the immune system. This can be a break in the skin where there is a sudden surge of bacteria where there shouldn’t be, but something like a respiratory infection is generally when the immune system is weakened and cannot fight off the bacteria that are breathed in. The immune system weakens when their health points are below a certain level.

So, where am I going with all of this? I want to explain that this is why a full husbandry review is necessary when determining why a chameleon is sick. We would love to think that there is one smoking gun. The temperature. The UVB. The cage set-up. And it is very tempting to find the first thing that doesn’t match our caresheet, call it out, and exit victorious. And, while it is true that we can often find one huge discrepancy it is important that we find all the issues in the husbandry. That one huge item we found, be it the temperature was too high or the supplements could be off, may have been the major thing that pushed the chameleon over the edge, but there could be a handful of other things that helped nudge it to the forefront.

In addition, if you are doing something that goes against conventional husbandry wisdom like keeping chameleons together or not giving a nighttime drop to your montane chameleons, you need to know that the effects of doing that are cumulative over time. You can get away with it for a while. If we use the “health points” analogy, if there is not enough nighttime drop for deep sleep you may lose 2 health points for the first week, 5 for the next week, and 10 for the next week. The first day or two living in the same cage with a dominate chameleon will be just a stress spike. After a week it becomes constant stress. The deceptive situation is that you are not seeing this slow degrading of the immune system. And then, out of nowhere, your chameleon gets an infection. That is the point where all these trivial husbandry issues summed up together to become negative and the immune system could not compete with the bacteria or fungus or whatever is attacking.

Two big culprits of cumulative stress are cohabitation and nighttime drops. The reason these husbandry issues continue are because we want what we want. We humans want to have at least a pair, but would love a herd, of chameleons in one cage. Despite decades of experienced keepers saying don’t do it and it being an unnatural condition, we cannot escape that we want to believe chameleons can be kept together. And there is always someone who wants to give that part of us hope and keeps chameleons together. And it appears to work. And as long as the chameleons are under these conditions the health points slowly ebb. But this is not visible. And when things finally go downhill it is due to respiratory infection or some other condition due to a weakened immune system. Folks, all of us saying not to do it are not saying that because we haven’t tried. We aren’t saying it because we just aren’t smart enough to figure it out. We are saying it because of decades of watching it be tried and failing. There is no power conspiracy here. Just be careful of the relentless loss of health points as stress spikes become low grade, but chronic, stress

Nighttime drops are another one. Especially for Jackson’s Chameleons. Our caresheets require ambient daytime temperatures in the low to mid 70s and a nighttime drop to the low 60s or 50s. Inevitably, someone brings up Jackson’s Chameleons establishing themselves in Hawaii and saying that the temperatures do not match what they survive in Hawaii. First, I want to say, if you are going to model your husbandry after a set of wild habitat parameters, use the land they spent their entire pre-history existence evolving to live in. Do not use a geographical area that they have been introduced to and the new land’s conditions happen to fall within the chameleon’s tolerance range. Saying that a chameleon can survive conditions other than its homeland is only showing their tolerance range, not their ideal range. And, yes, they have reproduced in Hawaii ad nauseum. So what is going on here? The same thing that goes on in our cages. They are in a constant condition of gaining and losing health points. They are finding cooler microclimates inside leafy trees and they are losing health points if they do not sleep deeply. You can still reproduce even when you are not on the top of your game.

We could go round and round about what the adaptation to Hawaii means, but my specialty is captive husbandry. And I will tell you that in the confines of the cage space we have available to us, the important parameters are not the macro conditions, but the microclimates that they spend their time in. It is not the conditions they can tolerate, but the conditions that nurture them. And determining these microclimate conditions is not easy at all. How much UVB does a chameleon expose itself to? At what combination of temperature and humidity and sun exposure does overheating occur? For these kinds of things we take our starting points from nature, but we have to experiment in our living rooms. Because our cages are very little like the wild condition. We have a constant UVB that flips on in the morning, stays at a constant rate, and then suddenly disappears. Same with light. The humidity- it is often air conditioned out of the air. And breezes occur when someone opens a door, turns on a fan, or that air conditioner again. And, finally, they are restricted to a space of a 2x2x4’ cage to find their preferred microclimates. Yes, they may have higher temperatures than ideal in their adopted new land, or even in their homeland, but they have entire trees and bush thickets to find cooler microclimates. Yes, we try to give them microclimates in the cage, but why would you start out your gradient with a temperature that is something they are having to tolerate. You are wasting valuable space.

And why would anyone resist a nighttime drop? Any one that seriously works with these higher altitude species would say that the nighttime drop is necessary or even critical. Well, simply because it is hard for some of us to get that low at night. Instead of paying the money for an air-conditioning unit or having the discipline to pick another species it is easier to decide they really don’t need that nighttime drop. And each night they don’t get good sleep is health points trickling away. And this isn’t hard to understand. You know how we humans get when we don’t have a good night’s sleep. It isn’t pretty. Take some of our recent summer months. One sweltering night being so hot that you are sweating onto the sheets and can’t get sleep because of swatting mosquitoes and the bags under your eyes could tell stories.  And after a week of sleepless nights you can’t decide whether you are the walking wounded or the living dead. Coffee is your best friend, but you are on a hair trigger temper. Yes, we survive, but every night you can feel your health points disappearing. Thankfully these heat waves go away and we get our health points back as we catch-up on our sleep again. And this isn’t just a game of logical leaps. You can tell how deeply your chameleon is sleeping. The warmer it is the lighter your chameleon sleeps and the easier your chameleon wakes up. You want your chameleon to have a deep sleep and that means cool, humid nights.

Like I said, the species that most gets the brunt of this ignoring of its needs is the Jackson’s Chameleon. If you have a Jackson’s Chameleon, I warn you against thinking it is okay to avoid a nightime drop. It will work for a while until they have worked through all their health points and then you get a Temporal Gland Infection…or your babies start dying off for no obvious reason. The two prime suspects in baby Jackson’s chameleons dying off: cohabitation and lack of nighttime drops. I can tell you from personal experience, when do I get a rash of infections? When we get the heat waves coming through Southern California. Life is perfect and Jackson’s thrive for most of the year. But when it gets hot the health points start to go the other way and a couple of infections crop up. I am on the look out and they get treated quickly. I have yet to lose one. And, really only one or two get them. So I could easily look at the ones that don’t and say they can handle the higher temperatures just fine. But that would be ignoring the overall trend that the instances of infections rise. And I have a big enough group that I can actually notice trends. Beware of getting husbandry advice that goes against the commonly accepted standards from people with one chameleon.

And, chances are that there is someone listening to this that will defend higher temperatures for Jackson’s Chameleons based on their interpretation of Hawaiian conditions. I only ask this. Before you make a logical argument that it is okay to keep Jackson’s at higher temperatures or without nighttime drops please try it out yourself in the captive cage environment and work out the issues. For those of us who have been working with Jackson’s over many generations and years we recognize that the nighttime drop and cooler daytime temperatures give the greatest success. This isn’t a game of what our chameleons can tolerate. It is a mission to determine what their optimal conditions are. I cannot think of any reasonable argument to include anything but the closest we know to optimal conditions when we give husbandry advice. So, when you bring up the Hawaii argument to say Jackson’s do not need a nighttime drop understand you are going to be shut down by the breeders who recognize you are suggesting sub-optimal husbandry. If you truly believe your position please put in the work we have and prove it over successful generations and side by side studies. I know that is a lot of work. But so much work has been put into supporting the need for a nighttime drop that it is appropriate that it take deliberate repeatable testing to modify that advice. That would expand our understanding of the species. Believe me, I would love to see that work done. But if you have just looked at numbers and have not gone through the effort of replicating what you are suggesting in the captive environment then go easy on your confidence in going against the best husbandry practices that we have come up with. We are always changing and growing. But we need to change and grow with a methodical approach. Get yourself some chameleons. Prove your idea correct. And then prove your idea wrong. If you can prove it right and can’t prove it wrong then you have a solid discovery to share with the community.

How about infertile egg production? That is a big one. Developing and then laying eggs is a major stress on a female’s body. Over feeding, over heating and then putting our female veiled chameleons through an egg production up to four or five times what their body is naturally expecting to do is a huge body stress. I wish we were farther along in dialing in the exact diet and temperatures, but many of us have been able to reduce or eliminate infertile clutches in our female veiled chameleons. My female has never had an infertile clutch. Unfortunately, she is still having much greater clutches than the target 20-30 so I am have not achieved the final goal, but it is easy to do by simply cutting back on how much you feed her and how hot you keep her. I am not giving you numbers yet because we are still working through what the numbers are. I do not suggest lightly the reduction of food and temperature because there is danger in too little and too cold and we have to find those limits. But I can tell you right now that the standard feeding and temperatures provided veiled chameleons right now are too much and too high. My caresheets are closer to where we need to be, but I know they are not the best numbers yet. As soon as I am personally confident that we have the right numbers I will change them. That needs to be done only after careful testing and replication of results. It will take time. But, excess weight and constant egg production of mega clutches, fertile or non,  is an obvious chipping away of the health points.

Anything else? Well, how about our humidity cycle? Our homes do not do well with close to 100% humidity at night. So all these chameleons in screen cages have a tube of fog to sit under if the keeper attempts at all to give them humid nights. Of course, since chameleons have been shown to be able to grow up and grow to what we presently consider to be old age using daytime misting not much thought is given to giving them what they naturally expect. I think we will be very surprised at how long they will actually live once we give them back the couple of health points they lose every night they dehydrate. Sure, they gain them back, or most of them, when the chameleon drinks in the morning. But just the act of losing and then gaining is a stress on the body which will shorten the overall life of your chameleon. That’s just the way life is.

So, ignoring the expected temperature drops, forcing social time on a non-social beast, ignoring the natural humidity cycle. Providing UVB that is higher than is necessary. Over feeding and over-energizing our chameleons. Stagnant air. Drafty air. Too hot, too cold.  All of these things take away health points.

Nutritious food, comfortable temperature ranges, constant hydration opportunities, a sense of security. These are all things that increase health points. The main point of this episode is to bring to light that each one of these husbandry items has a certain weight. Just because forgetting to replace your burnt out UVB bulb hasn’t killed your chameleon it doesn’t mean it hasn’t weakened your chameleon. Just because your chameleons have appeared to be living in harmony for the last six months doesn’t mean you haven’t been slowly reducing their immune system. It all adds or subtracts.

And this is why we dive into each species and learn their requirements and best practices. This is why we seek to determine what the optimal UVB level is for each species. And once we do that, we will go the next step of discerning what is needed for each life stage. This is our art and science. And if you love chameleons as much as I do, I invite you to get obsessive about what is optimal. So much of what I do here is refining things that aren’t necessarily broken. Someone might ask why we need panther chameleons to live more than five years. The answer is because they can. And all we have to do is do our job right as keepers. And I don’t mean get in fights with people with logical arguments over temperature ranges. I mean test things out and give hard repeatable benefits. One of our community’s greatest achievements in 2018 was the wide spread awareness of the naturalistic hydration approach. See episode 89. And 2018 was the first time much of the community learned that Veiled Chameleons are actually not from harsh dry landscapes and we got a first person account of the oases that they truly live in. Check out episode 86.  In 2019 it was the establishment of UVI 3 as the effective UVI for Veiled and Panther Chameleons. See episode 131. Pete Hawkins, Jonathan Hill, and I established that as a repeatable milestone. I also started working on awareness that we need to watch out for excessive UVB levels. See episode 127. 2020, this year, we have seen a breakthrough with incubation diapause from Frank Payne, (that was the episode for April 15, 2020) and serious work towards reducing clutch size and infertile clutches of female Veiled Chameleons with Mari Joki and people working with Petr Necas. (episode for April 6, 2020). Every year we are working on refining our husbandry and reducing the loss of health points. And, yes, we still have so much further to go. But that is why we need people willing to put in the work doing side by side studies. Talk is cheap, unless it is reporting hard work. The encouraging thing is that, as you can see, we are moving forward. Every year, for the past few years, we have made substantial steps forward as far as husbandry. And, if this podcast has anything to say about it, we will continue to make breakthroughs.

I’d like to thank you for joining me here. Thank you for joining me for these many years of podcasting about our chameleons and chameleon community. It doesn’t look like anything is slowing down. So buckle up and let’s see where we can take the art of chameleon husbandry!

 

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