Caresheet Confusion

Chameleon UVB Measuring with Solarmeter 6.5

Chameleon UVB: What is UV Index (UVI)

UV Index

UV Index is a measurement system used by the World Health Organization to determine the likelihood of getting a sunburn. It measures the wavelengths of light that come from the sun that are in the range that cause sunburn. As these are the same wavelengths that we use to synthesize vitamin D3, the reptile community has adopted this measurement system for our UVB needs.

Previously, we used a system that measured the energy hitting a certain area and that is where you see the units of micro-watts per square centimeter (µw/cm^2). When you review the past works of Dr. Gary Ferguson and other scientists you’ll find all measurements done in this system. The meters that are used to measure UVI and µw/cm^2 measure different wavelength spans so there is no direct conversion between the two.

For context, here are some prominent UVI levels

UVI 0 = Nighttime

UVI 3 = target basking for Veiled & Panther Chameleons

UVI 11 = Human skin burns in 10 minutes

UVI 13 = typical daytime maximum for lowland Madagascar

UVI 43 = maximum natural UVI recorded on Earth

 

UVB technology today can expose chameleons to UV Index levels from UVI 0 to UVI 160 depending on the distance from the bulb and the filtering. It is important that we use UVB correctly!

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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.

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Chameleon Environment: How Are Misters Used?

Misting has been the cornerstone of chameleon hydration. Though most care sheets do not touch on hydration at all, the hallmark of the Chameleon Academy Care Summaries is the more detailed description of hydration methods and timing.  The confusion will come in with how misters are used. Some advocate misters being used as the primary hydration tool during the daytime while others place misters as a nighttime hydration tool in conjunction with a fogger.

Hydration Schedule

The historical way that misters have been used is to get water on the leaves where a chameleon can drink it or, even, to shower the chameleon until it drinks the water showering down on it. At the beginning of my podcast I was a vocal proponent of using misters to shower down chameleons until they drank and rolled their eyes in their socket. This was interpreted as them washing their eyes out. The problem with that thought process was twofold. First, chameleons absolutely hated being sprayed. Second, they got ample water during the wet season, but somehow survived months of dry season and so it didn’t make sense that they needed so much water multiple times during the day. This was finally explained and fixed when the hydration cycles were reversed to the more natural nighttime and morning hydration termed the “naturalistic hydration method” and shown on the present care summaries.

 

The naturalistic hydration method, as currently presented, uses misters, but only ay night to prep the cage for foggers and to provide a blanket of dew on the cage surfaces for the chameleon to find in the morning. Misting is discouraged during the daytime as it is annoying to the chameleon. It is true that a thirsty chameleon will drink when misted during the day, but it is so much better to get them on a good hydration schedule so they are not feeling the need to drink. I go as far to say that you know when your hydration regimen is successful when your chameleon has no interest in drinking during the day.

 

The controversy you will run into is that the bulk of the community is still using misting during the day and is resistant to switch up what has been working all this time. They do not see benefit to switch up what has been working well enough so far. And, no one cares to be told that what they are good at doing could be done better. So this switch to using the misters as a supporting tool for nighttime humidity and morning dew will be a slow one and mostly with new keepers.

Conclusion

The role of misters in chameleon hydration will be a dynamic one. Misters are actually not the ideal tool for the job we are using them for. Pressurized water coming from the side is not what we really want. The ideal is a more rain-like situation where we can turn on a “drizzle” or light shower to provide our morning dew. As more people get involved in advanced vivarium equipment this should become possible.

 

So, in conclusion, daytime misting has been used effectively for many years. The newest care sheets, including the Chameleon Academy Care Summaries, advocate for nighttime use and as a supporting roll to nighttime humidity. This is a caresheet parameter in transition as the community grows in understanding of chameleon hydration.

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Jackson's Chameleon in fog

Chameleon Environment: Humidity

Hydration Schedule

Humidity is not necessarily a controversial topic as much as it is has been overlooked for so long as an important husbandry consideration. I feel much of this has to do with the chameleon community’s concentration on screen cages. Screen cages are exceptionally difficult to have any sort of control over humidity. The best you can do is use a fogger which produces a narrow cone of fog for the chameleon to find if it wants to sleep in a humid environment. And, considering how many chameleons somehow figure out where this cone of fog will be and select that place to sleep it is plain to see that they like humid nights. But the community has ignored this environmental parameter to its detriment.

With the growing shift to the naturalistic hydration method which employs cool, high humidity nights with dryer, warmer days, the awareness of the benefits of purposefully creating a humidity plan in our chameleon’s environment is spreading rapidly.

 

But since this is a parameter in transition in the community you will still find the day and night change in humidity conditions only on the more progressive care sheets. As humidity is either an omission or a single value in most care sheets, you will not find much in the way of conflict amongst the breeders and social media folk if you go with the naturalistic method. The conflict will arise if you start switching your caging away from screen cages to hybrid cages so you can effectively control your humidity. Humidity is a parameter which has not been given much attention before, but is so tied into other aspects of husbandry that taking it seriously affects caging, misting, and heating.

 

Humidity has been a sleeper parameter for so long because the benefits have been difficult to detect directly. The main benefit is that the chameleon stays hydrated during the night and does not wake up dehydrated. As we humans normally think of hydration as only the drinking action we can see, we have focused on daytime hydration. So we have disregarded the benefits of breathing humid air because we have made up with it by misting multiple times during the day and taking comfort in seeing the drinking action. By taking a step back and implementing cool, high humidity nights, we are seeing less need for daytime drinking. This is because the chameleons do not wake up as dehydrated.

Conclusion

The chameleon community has made low humidity husbandry work by subsidizing it with misting systems. While it has proved to be effective, I encourage you to give an increased focus on providing the humidity cycles that match the chameleon’s natural conditions. Our goal in chameleon husbandry is to give them the best life we can. The more of our conditions they thrive in rather than tolerate the healthier they can be. Focusing in on humidity is a significant change in husbandry approach and requires re-writing things many of us have done for decades. But, this one is worth it. I have seen the changes it makes in my chameleons’ general hydration state and I can feel good about getting behind this change in chameleon husbandry.

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Chameleon Environment: Length of Basking Time

Hydration Schedule

The act of basking requires both the right amount of heat and the right amount of time. Although a warmer spot means less time needed to bask, going too hot produces burns. Most care sheets dictate that the basking bulb needs to be on all day. The logic is that the sun is up all day. But putting down a black and white schedule removes the keeper’s judgement from the situation. The purpose of a basking bulb is to warm the chameleon up in the morning. Once that job is completed, there may not be need for it again. And if it is left on it could actually be contributing to the overheating of the enclosure environment. But there will be situations where the ambient temperatures are low enough that a warm spot through out the day will be useful to the chameleon. On the Chameleon Academy care summary I have a gradient line indicating that keeper judgement should be used and the basking bulb length of time be intelligently applied with respect to the chameleon’s needs. I believe this to be a much more effective approach and produce a better husbandry.

Because of the problems with over-energizing veiled chameleons into producing life threatening amounts of eggs, there is also a school of thought that says to purposefully limit the basking time. Although this may be effective to reduce over-energizing the chameleons, I am not yet in a position where I am comfortable producing a “recipe” for doing this with the confidence that it will be carried out without a certain percentage of the keepers doing it wrong and producing an unhealthy environment. Thus basking length of time will also be an evolving parameter in chameleon husbandry.

The idea of purposefully limiting the basking independent of what the chameleon is communicating to you through their behavior is a practice that we need to thoughtfully consider. Whenever we decide that we know better than the chameleon what they need we must do it with great humility and care. There is no doubt that we do this all the time. Our chameleons are strangers to our enclosures and electronic energy sources. They have shown that our approach confuses them to the point where they will burn themselves trying to bask under a light that is too hot. So, limiting their access to dangerous levels of heat, UVB or food is a given. We have seen that they burn themselves, will expose their belly to excessively high UVB, and will eat to unhealthy levels (not that many of us are in the position to judge them).

But at what point do we over step our bounds and take too much control over a process which we have the barest of understanding? This is a question we must constantly keep in our minds as we create this environment for our chameleons. We are playing God with something that is not of our creation. This is a heavy responsibility that we must take seriously. We have a living being that is depending on us to make the right decisions.

I feel safe teaching newcomers to use moderate temperatures and to watch chameleon behavior to decide whether to limit basking time. I take the approach of  watching your chameleon to determine if they have had enough.  There may come a time where I feel that I will be effective enough in my communication that I could lead someone to limit basking time and be able to determine if the chameleon needs more. Is it better to err on the side of too long or too short? That is, in the end, the question we are asking. Each care sheet author and chameleon keeper must choose their path.

Conclusion

Length of basking time differs in caresheet direction between the common forcing of 12 hours of basking, the Chameleon Academy approach of adjusting length of time with respect to the communicated needs from the chameleon, and the purposefully limiting of basking time regardless of chameleon communication.

Recommending 12 hours on is a very basic approach. It is effective most of the time when using screen cages. The danger comes when it is presented as a requirement and keepers are told they must leave it on for 12 hours despite any mitigating environmental conditions. This is a simplistic mindset that comes from inexperience and you should rise above this as soon as you get orientated enough that you realize you are being taught from it.

Adjusting length of basking time with respect to chameleon behavior is a more sophisticated approach which does take more thought. I would encourage you to embrace it none the less. The art of chameleon keeping is not a simple recipe that will produce the same results every time in every "kitchen". Your conditions are unique and the most effective way to create an effective chameleon environment is to be conscious and mindful of those conditions and how you must change them for your chameleon's benefit.

Purposefully limiting the basking time is a level of control that you should take on once you are confident you understand the signs of under energized chameleons. It is possible this may be a normal practice in the future. If the keepers presently doing this show, over the years, more healthy, long lived chameleons that both grow to their full size potential as well as produce no infertile clutches then this practice will rightfully take its place as the standard.

I will be excited to change my recommendations to any method that brings the husbandry success of full sized chameleons with no infertile clutches across a wide range of keepers. Keep tuned in. This is a parameter that is being heavily tested out.

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Chameleon basking

Chameleon Environment: Basking Temperature

Basking temperature is a care sheet parameter that has been going through scrutiny lately. Thus there will be a wide range of values you will run into when scanning the available care sheets out there. Each species has its own range, but if we take panther chameleons as an example, I have seen values from 100F down to 80F. Most breeders have their suggested basking temperature ranges in the high 80s to low 90s. So, why the wide range?

Basking is important as chameleons are ectothermic, or cold blooded, and, after a cool night,  need to raise their body temperature using external heat. They will bask until they achieve their target temperature and then go about their day. This target temperature is necessary for proper digestion and optimal body function. But, like every care parameter, there can be too much and too little.

Way Too Much: Chameleons can, and will, burn themselves if the basking temperature is too hot. Although they can thermoregulate and will bask until they are done, they seem to have no mechanism to detect that they are burning. Chameleons will sit under a basking light that is too hot and literally burn themselves. We do not know if this is because they cannot feel it, they do not know what the feeling is, or if the need to warm up overrides the signal that there is pain from burning. But one thing is clear, we chameleon keepers have a responsibility to carefully monitor the basking temperature allowed in the cage. See the medical section on Chameleon Burns for more information.

Too Much: This is the area that has only been recently brought to the spotlight (so to speak). Chameleons can be overcharged. Given heat and excessive food and the chameleon's body will enter an unhealthful state where they grow overweight and females will overproduce eggs in both fertile and infertile clutches. This is unhealthy in males and life threatening in females through dystocia (egg binding).

Just Right: When the basking temperature is just right the chameleon will warm themself under the bulb for 30 to 60 minutes and then retreat away from the bulb heat to find food or rest safely in the leaves.

Too Little: When there is not enough heat the chameleon will be lethargic and internal processes will be slowed down. A growing chameleon that does not receive enough heat will grow slower and could be stunted if the low temperature condition persists over the months.

The complication is that the effect of the basking is in the dose, meaning (temperature x length of basking time) and there has been no firm test performed to determine the optimal basking "dose". So the caresheet author's job is to select a temperature that they judge effective by watching chameleon behavior and vigor when presented with certain temperature ranges.

Panther Chameleon Temperature

The reason why there is a wide range in basking temperature advice is that we are becoming more aware of there being the "Too Much" range of temperature between the level where they will be burned and the healthy range of basking temperatures. This realization is relatively new because large and plump chameleons were typically viewed as desirable. Large clutches of eggs were taken as a badge of honor that our husbandry was excellent. Educating the community that this is this is the opposite of good husbandry has been a slow process.

The decrease in recommended basking temperatures is in response to the desire to extend the chameleon's life - especially the females. Success is measured in the slim body build, lack of infertile clutches laid, and natural levels of eggs being produced.

The main species of concern is the Veiled Chameleon as they are especially prone to being overcharged and readily will present you with an oversized clutch of infertile eggs up to over 100 per clutch, but we see this in panther chameleons and others to a lesser extent.

For the Chameleon Academy care summaries I choose a basking temperature that is on the low end of what has a long track record of producing healthy chameleons. I do not go to the lowest levels as they have not been fully tested across the general community. The reason why this testing is important to me is that most of the community will not be able to identify the signs of chameleons not getting enough basking light. The exception species is the Veiled Chameleon as we are witnessing a health crisis to the point where laying bins are required in any female veiled's cage and vets are offering proactive spaying procedures to save the female's life before egg binding happens.

Conclusion

Basking temperature is a parameter which will evolve over time as more and more people show success with the lower ranges. This will rest on the shoulders of the experienced community that can identify the subtle signs of growing fat pads on one end or sluggish behavior on the other. After working this out within their own collections we will then see how other less experienced people interpret and execute the temperatures. And this stage is the final step to creating a "recipe" temperature range that is easy to follow.

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Chameleon in Hybrid cage

Chameleon Cage Type: Screen, Hybrid, and Glass

Panther Chameleon Cage

Which type of cage you use for your chameleon – Screen, Hybrid, or Glass – can be a controversial topic. A significant segment of the community holds to the thought that chameleons need screen cages or they will die. This is simply not true. In fact, in most cases, a hybrid cage is more appropriate. A hybrid cage has mostly solid sides with special vents or screen panel configuration to encourage airflow. The truth is that the closer your ambient conditions are to what your chameleon needs, the more screen sides you’ll want on the cage. The more you have to change the ambient environment, the more solid sides you’ll have to incorporate.

Most care information available is for screen cages. Although there has been a significant adoption of solid side cages in the advanced community it isn’t because using them is so hard. It is simply that the experienced community knows what the best tools for the job are and are not swayed by the hype. I have often said to go with the cage type your advisor is most comfortable with. But when you have your feet under you and are able to understand your cage system then look into hybrid caging. In most cases, you will find your ability to create the proper humidity ebb and flow much easier!

The key to making solid side cages work is that you learn to monitor your heat and humidity. While screen cages are easier in the respect that they don’t store heat and humidity, they are less effective because you are unable to control the ambient conditions of the chameleon’s cage beyond the localized areas in front of the basking bulb or fogger.

The glass vs. screen debate will continue for long time. Perhaps the compromise of the hybrid cage will serve as a bridge for future chameleon community generations to see the cage types not as competitors, but as tools to be used where their advantages contribute to better chameleon husbandry.

Conclusion

I do not specify a cage type on the Chameleon Academy Care Summaries because the cage type will depend on your environment. A person in hot, dry Arizona with the air-conditioning running all day may not use the same caging as someone in humid, cool England. There is a false comfort in choosing to listen to an “expert” source that gives you a simple answer without taking into account the details of your particular situation. Unfortunately, doing it right is not simple. You have to think about conditions. While the ability to do this should be every chameleon keeper’s goal, there is no doubt that this is a skill to be learned that is beyond most people just starting off. We all start at the beginning and there is no shame in that. So the best course of action is to find a mentor or advisor that has kept chameleons in your general area and has dealt with the conditions you will face. And do what they have been successful with. Although I would cringe at advice given by people who say to only use screen cages, I also acknowledge that screen cage husbandry has been made to work. If you are surrounded by people saying to use screen cages only then you will probably be okay doing what they do. If their chameleons are alive they have figured out how to make it work. Just keep in the back of your mind that there is far to go and much to learn on the subject of chameleon cage types. But that can be for another day!

Further Research

There are, of course, many resources for continued research on the subject. A good start are two podcasts on both glass and hybrid caging.


 

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Chameleon Cages

Minimum Female Chameleon Cage Size

Panther Chameleon Cage

Chameleon Cage Size usually isn’t that controversial of a topic. It is generally accepted that bigger is better. There are a few side topics that sometimes come up.

One is minimum size for females.

Often, females of the species get a smaller minimum size because their body is smaller in species. This is most commonly seen in panther chameleons where the female is noticeably smaller than the male. But I have opted to remove this smaller size from the Panther Chameleon Care Summary.  Female Panther Chameleons have been successfully kept in 18" x 18" x 36" cages so the care sheets that list this smaller size are not wrong. I have elected to remove this option from the Chameleon Academy care summary because it is such a minor jump in cost and space to give them the same 2x2x4’ size as the males and it will be a huge increase in quality of life for your chameleon.

So is it accurate to list 2x2x4 as a minimum for females? For this I am taking artistic license. The spirit of a Care Summary is to provide a guide for chameleon husbandry to the best of the authors knowledge. Minimum cage size is a pure value judgement based on how well the chameleon will do in that size. For proper chameleon husbandry advice I balance my recommendations between what is best for the chameleon and what is realistic for most people to implement. In the particular case of female panther chameleon husbandry, my judgement says that the best living experience and your enjoyment with your chameleon will come from the readily available 2' x 2' x 4' or 36" x 18" x 36" cage sizes. I cannot think of a chameleon species that is available to the herpetocultural community where the size difference is so great that it justifies a different minimum cage size for females. So, going forward, I will not be presenting a different minimum cage size for females.

Conclusion

So, does this mean all the other caresheets that list minimum female cage sizes as smaller than male cage sizes are wrong? Does this mean that all the years of me saying that a 18"x18"x36" for a female panther chameleon was wrong and I need to go back and change everything? No, of course not. The smaller size will work. This is a 100% case of the caresheet author (me) making a judgement as to what is best for your chameleon's life and your enjoyment of the chameleon keeping experience. This is a minor change that returns great dividends to both you and your chameleon. So, this is my choice for what information I feel best about passing on to the beginner chameleon community.

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