Jacksons Chameleon and chameleon hydration

Ep 89: Naturalistic Hydration for Chameleons

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Transcript (More or Less)

Intro to Holistic Hydration

It is time to revisit our understanding of hydration in chameleons. We are well aware of hydration during the day, but that is only half of the story. Today we are going to talk about hydration over the entire 24 hours in the day to form a holistic approach to a captive hydration strategy.


Hydration is important Because

Hydration has always been recognized as a critical husbandry parameter. Proper hydration is the foundation that must be solid and in place before any sort of success with chameleons can be realized. The dangers of dehydration are not a surprise. A lack of this critical element leads to organs not functioning and a breakdown of bodily functions. Thus proper hydration must be at the forefront of our husbandry practices. As with all of our captive parameters, we take our cues from nature and do our best to recreate that in our homes. This is important because they spent 100 million years evolving within certain parameters. Some conditions they tolerate and some they depend on. Of course, to complicate things, they depend on certain conditions to a certain point and then they are just tolerating them. So we definitely have our work cut out for us to decipher this riddle. But as critical as hydration is to health, it is well worth deep study.


The complete hydration cycle

I want to start off this segment by reminding you that there are between one and two hundred chameleon species living from the deserts to the frigid mountain peaks and everywhere in between. There is no one chameleon environment. So we are talking in generalities and will put together a hydration plan that will work for just about any chameleon. But if you are getting a fringe species such as namaquaensis it goes without saying that you will be doing much more species specific research. Though for veiled chameleons, panthers, jackson’s and any species you are remotely likely to find in a pet store, what I talk about today will apply.

So, let’s start with the basics of hydration.Throughout the day, chameleons encounter moisture in four ways. Rain, dew, humidity, and food.

Rain is the most obvious. The rain level each species gets varies with environment. It is common for there to be both a wet and a dry season where there is a deluge of rain during the wet season and very little rain during the dry season. In some environments, the dry seasons are so traumatic to the environment that it can wipe out chameleon populations. Chamaeleo calyptratus is literally killed off by the dry season starving them and blasting them with sun. The entire world’s population of Furcifer labordi doesn’t even wait to be killed by the dry season. They just hatch at the beginning of the wet season, grow, mate, lay eggs, and then die before the dry season can kill them. Other chameleons brumate or hibernate to make it through the harsh dry season. But it is the milder dry seasons and the chameleons that go about their lives during these times that have puzzled us the most over the years. Why are our chameleons drinking so much during the day in captivity when they appear to have no rain in the wild? How do they get their hydration in the wild?

The answer is that there is a great deal that goes on during the night. The humidity spikes and the temperature drops. This lowers the dew point and water condenses on surfaces in what we call dew. Thus the chameleon wakes up to moisture available to be lapped up. This is not a totally satisfying answer as it is hard to imagine there being enough dew to be available to supply the same amount of water as some of the long drinking sessions we see in captivity. To address that we go back to what creates the dew in the first place – the high nighttime humidity. Reports from the field share that Even in the dry season, nighttime fog or mist rolls in and settles until it is chased away by the sun the next morning. The chameleon is immersed by the high humidity and breathing in the moisture. This is our most overlooked aspect of chameleon hydration. It is well known that we lose water through breathing. I was amused to find a UK government website educating about condensation and mold explaining to people that just by breathing they contribute  ½ a pint of water to the air each night. But what about reptiles? Do ectotherms – or cold-blooded animals – do the same? And who makes a lizard breathe into a breath analyzer? Well, who do you think? Our tireless army of scientists whose job it is to answer these kind of questions!! In conversations with Dr. Chris Anderson, he relayed that that there was a study where an anole species was measured to lose .43% of its body weight per hour through its breath. So I think it is safe to assume this dynamic is the same in chameleons. Here is where we need to pay attention. That high humidity surrounding the chameleon would reduce or completely halt the moisture loss during the night due to breathing. If the air is as moist as the lungs there just isn’t the water transfer from the body. And it can go a step further. The lung membrane can absorb and pass through medicines we nebulize and nicotine we smoke and, if there is a humidity imbalance between the air breathed in and the lungs we could even get moisture absorbed from breathing. The important dynamic here is that nature has given chameleons a way to not lose moisture during the night so the dew in the morning is really just to “top it off”. This explains why we see so much drinking in captivity during the day. They are trying to make up for the moisture lost during the night. In our indoor homes our humidity comfort level varies depending on temperature but hovers between 30 and 60%. Our heating and cooling tends to suck moisture out of the air so this creates a situation where the chameleon wakes up like we do – lighter due to water loss. You can do this experiment with yourself. Weigh yourself before going to bed and then in the morning before going to the bathroom and see that you lost weight overnight! I did this experiment with two male veiled chameleons. I weighed them just after they went to sleep at night and then just before the lights went back on in the morning. One slept under a fogger and one slept in normal ambient humidity that ranged from 50% to 60%. The dry male went from 45 grams to 44 grams – so he lost a gram, presumably through water loss because he did not poop during the night. The male that slept in the fog maintained his 52 grams all night. Now please understand that this was a standard kitchen grade gram scale so it is not worth calculating percentages, but it is enough to know that this phenomena is easy to check yourself.


How we can recreate this complete hydration cycle in captivity?

First let’s set up a target strategy and then we will figure out how to pull it off with the standard equipment available to us at this time. Midnight is as good as any place to start. We are looking for a fog bank to roll through our cage from midnight until early morning while the chameleon is sleeping. It is after midnight that it gets thick. When the chameleon wakes up we would like to have dew waiting on the leaves. The morning basking lamp needs to come on and start the drying process. One thing we have known for a while is that surfaces that are constantly wet will cause problems in the form of mold, bacteria and fungus. The cage surfaces absolutely need to dry out. And then, sometime in the middle of the day, let’s give an afternoon rain shower. Since we are dedicating ourselves to the study of their natural environment and conditions let’s time it so we give those afternoon rainshowers only during the months of their wet season. Research your species. For example, Veiled chameleons in Yemen have their rainy season from April through August while Kenyan species such as Jacksonii xantholophus actually have two rainy seasons from March to May and from October through December. Your love for chameleons is going to make you worldly without even leaving your home!


Fog at night

Okay, it is now time to execute on this. Our first task is to create a fog bank at night. This is going to be the most difficult part for those of us with screen cages. Screen cages are great to make sure that the cage does not get muggy and stagnant. It does this by air flow. Well, that works perfectly for our humidity if your home is between 90% and 100% relative humidity. Unless you live in a greenhouse I can almost guarantee this is not the case. So we are going to be fighting against the airflow. This is why you see many advanced keepers keeping their chameleons in at least partially solid sided cages. Solid sides cages give us the ability to control the humidity in our chameleon’s environment with the recognition that our humidity is not always best for them. But it doesn’t mean you have to throw away your screen cage. You can get more humidity control by enclosing sides of your screen cage. Anything from clear plastic painter’s tarp to cleanly cut plastic panels can be attached to the sides and back of your cage to give you a pocket to work with. I have found success going a step further and putting clear plastic on the front as well leaving only the bottom front service door and the top panel screen. This way I am able to keep my humidity in with just enough airflow to keep things moving.

The fog itself can be created with a humidifier. There are cool mist humidifiers that whip water into the air using a fan and there are ultra-sonic humidifiers that create a fog. Cool-mist can cover a larger area, but ultrasonic fog can be focused much easier. I use ultrasonic humidifiers in my set-ups. The fog coming out is so fine that it is easily breathed in and it takes a while before it starts getting surfaces wet. We have all night for this so I am in no hurry. The one thing you have to deal with concerning he ultrasonic fog is that it can be too focused and only affect a small area of your cage. The more ventilation you have the more this will be a problem. A fully screen cage can easily have a small beam of fog going through the middle of the cage and dissipating before doing the chameleon in the corner any good. I suggest adapting the cage to contain humidity rather than just humidifying the entire room. As cool as that sounds, take it from a guy who had this bright idea and turned his garage into a very cool fog bank, standard walls, paint, and everything else in the room is not meant to be immersed in fog like your chameleon is. I was very fun while it lasted, but this is the reason why it is good to listen to the people who have been around the block a couple times. You can avoid some of the learning experiences that have made us such interesting folk to talk with.

Dew in Morning

You may get a layer of dew as a result of your humidifying efforts during the night. But I like to make sure by using a mister to lay down a coating of dew before the morning lights turn on. So 30 minutes before he lights come on I run the mister for another minute

Drying out during the day

So we went through all that work to humidify the cage and now we need to dry out the cage. Now you wish you had all that ventilation! As you may gather, our chameleon husbandry is always a give and take. There are no perfect solutions to our husbandry challenges! /any way you go you will have to compensate in some way. So morning is the time for the heat lamp to come on. By midmorning, there should be no wet branches. Constantly wet branches can cause foot infections and it will make for an unhygienic environment. Heat must be maintained at a safe basking temperature for the chameleon so if that is not doing the job then you must create more air flow. This can be done by using a fan. But create a gentle breeze. Point the fan so it blows across the top panel, not directly at the cage

Afternoon Rain shower

In nature when an afternoon shower is on its way the chameleon gets many signals. The sky darkens with cloud cover and barometric pressure changes. Granted, the weather tends to be harder to predict closer to the equator, but there are some rain drops and then more so when you gather all these bits of information together you pretty much have an idea there will be some rain. Our chameleons aren’t getting that warning when we suddenly flip on a misting system. One second your chameleon is comfortably basking and the next he is suddenly blasted with mist. If you are replicating an afternoon shower, let’s do our best to give some indication of what is coming. I have done this by turning off the heat lamp 15 to 30 minutes before my misters will go on. I might add in turning on the fogger right before the mister to further cool the area down. Even a two minute misting session is enough, but you can make it go as long as you want. If the chameleon has ample foliage to retreat into and you give environmental warnings then your chameleon will choose for itself how it wants to deal with the afternoon shower. After the shower and fogger are turned off I wait for another 15 minutes for turning the heat lamp back on if it is going back on.

And then we come back to the night time.

I have my misters set-up to go off for a minute after the lights are all off. This lays down a good start to the humidifying actions for the night.

I will also indulge my chameleon with back-up hydration. I firmly believe that we should replicate the natural cycle as closely as possible, which we are talking about now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t stack the odds in my favor. I will start a gravity dripper around 8AM that will run a couple hours until the water runs out. This is my insurance. By adhering to the natural cycles I make my husbandry as close to what their body was designed for. By adding in a dripper I am including a failsafe measure, just in case. This also helps me with live plants because I place the dripper over a different plant every day which ensures my plants get watered too!


Summary of schedule.

So lets summarize this ideal schedule

The chameleon goes to sleep.

I spray the cage down with the mister for a minute and put down a layer of mist

The fogger comes on around midnight and brings in the fog.

The mister goes off for a minute half an hour before lights come on.

Lights come on

Dripper starts dripping

If I am doing an afternoon shower I turn off heat lamps 15 minutes before the shower

I start the fogger right before the mister

Run the moister for 2 minutes

Fogger and mister go off

Heat lamp goes back on 15 minute after misting is completed.

Lights go off at night and we are back to the start.


Before we leave this topic I want to make a case for live plants as part of your hydration strategy. During the day we want the cage to dry out. We can give a humidity back-up by creating a dense network of live plants with appropriate branches to give access. Not only does this give them the important security of not being seen, but using living plants gives us a slight humidity pocket. During the day, plants move nutrients from roots through out the plant by a method called transpiration. The plant moves water to pores on the leaves and lets the water evaporate. This evaporation creates a vacuum in the plant’s vein system which draws the nutrients up. All of this evaporation gives us humidity. The more living plants the more humidity. Now, transpiration only happens during the daytime. Because of natural humidity in the air and the lack of sun, evaporation is much more difficult and the plant switches to guttation. Guttation uses water pressure from the roots to push the nutrients up as opposed to the transpiration pull we know and love during the day. But we are bringing in the fogger big guns to give us the nighttime humidity, so this is okay.


So what now? Are you curious enough that you would like to make your hydration a 24 hours strategy? The initial reports, including my own, is that under this regimen, chameleons aren’t observed to drink as much during the day. As side effect is there is also less water being put into the cage. But this really is a no risk thing to try. With the misting and dripper during the day your chameleon will have ample access to hydration. You wouldn’t want to cut back on these thing until you are sure that you are getting the same hydration levels as you were before.


New ideas.

So, at this time during this podcast I am going to switch gears and would like to use this as an opportunity to practice how to test new ideas. Be careful whenever testing a new idea so basic to husbandry. Many of us have developed and refined our other husbandry parameters alongside only daytime hydration. Even if this is an unnatural condition, your other husbandry parameters have filled in whatever was lacking. Make sure you don’t break something by fixing something else. This is the exact situation we had with the push for acceptance for solid side enclosures. You can’t just switch out your screen cage and replace it with a glass terrarium. You have to adjust every other parameter that was optimized for screen cages. Heat was more powerful because it had to be. Misting was more frequent because it had to overcome the ventilation. But in a glass terrarium those care parameters would overwhelm the system with deadly results. Likewise with night time hydration we must be cautious because every husbandry parameter is in balance with the others. It doesn’t mean we don’t change! It just means we are trying new methods fully aware that other of our parameters may be affected. So…let’s establish a process  Here is a template to guide your exploration of new ideas. You can use this to monitor the results of any husbandry parameter you want to test.

  • Understand what you want to accomplish. If the change you are implementing does not have a measurable change on your chameleon’s life then it is difficult to say whether you have been successful or not. There has to be some reason why you are changing a parameter and how you will judge success. Are you changing your supplementation? Your UVB bulb? The type of water? What problem are you solving? It is critical to be clear on this because our next task is…
  • How will you measure success? There has to be a way that you are measuring success or that it isn’t working so you can know when you can share this with others or, more importantly, know when to stop! Social media is filled with grand ideas spouted off with no concept as to whether they are appropriate for your particular situation. You need a way to gauge improvement or at least know when you need to protect against something gone wrong.
  • Know the limits. There can be too much and too little of everything. Know what the limits are so you can watch out for when you reach them. You may not know how big the tolerance zone is, but all the more reason to look at for it!


So what better activity for us to do together while we still have time is to apply these questions to this holistic hydration strategy. Let’s start with


What Do I Want To Accomplish?

By recreating their natural hydration cycle I am trying to prolong their lives. The idea is that by having them in conditions that are as similar to the conditions they evolved with their bodies will experience less long term acclimation stress. So, I am working on ways to extend the lifespans of my captive chameleons. I am going to go ahead and answer the other version of this question:

What am I trying to fix?

My chameleons appear hydrated with my current protocol so this is an important question. Since immediate health is not an issue this is a more long term answer. From the reports from the field, and the well known weather patterns we can tell that chameleons are not offered water every day in the wild. In fact, they go long periods of time without rain. So their natural method of hydration during these times is high humidity during the night and dew on the leaves in the morning. It is reasonable to assume that removing the night time conditions will force the body into a hydration cycle it was not optimized to work in.  Me dehydrating them during the night and requiring them to hydrate during the day is turned around from what they are used to. Now whether losing hydration during the night and having to replenish during the day is a stress or within their tolerance zone or completely irrelevant to them is hard to tell.   There comes a time where what we are doing everyday slowly extends their lives or slowly reduces their lifespan. And there is no way to do a “what if” and know how it would be if I made different decisions in my husbandry. If we as a community embrace this new idea and average life expectancies increase then we have some important information. But if you are trying something new and need to work things out then it is likely there is no history for you to reference. In a case like this, I will place priority to creating as natural of conditions as possible. And if I run across something that brings me closer to their natural environment that is within my reasonable power then that is a good enough reason for me, personally, to try it out.


Okay, So, my next challenge:

How will I measure Progress or Success?

If you are decreasing daytime humidity and increasing ventilation to correct husbandry so a respiratory infection does not come back then the end goal is pretty clear and defined! Moving your chameleon cage from the floor to the top of the dresser to stop him from continuously climbing the walls of his cage has a very quick measure of success and measure of progress. This is the advantage of fixing something that has an easily observed problem!  In the case of changing the hydration strategy, my end goal is pretty far out and, with my limited sample size, not definitive. If my chameleon lives 10 years instead of 5 to 7 years I don’t know if it was due to my genius hydration decision, winning the gene lottery which I had no control over, or that bite from the radioactive spider when he was two years old. So I will content myself with a more or less daily check that hydration levels are being maintained. Let’s finish this analysis exercise and then I will go into details on how I will measure my progress and the daily hydration levels.


Next is to determine the limits. If you are experimenting  with UVB levels then your limits may be the beginnings of Metabolic Bone Disease on one end and sunburn on the other. If you are working with supplementations you have Metabolic Bone Disease, eye infections, and a downward crash of health on the not-enough end and on the too-much end you have Metabolic Bone Disease, eye infections, and a downward crash of health. So, yeah, don’t screw up that one. In my case, I have dehydration on the not enough-end and over-hydration on the too-much end. No matter what the chances are that I will hit those levels I need to be consciously aware of what they are and what the signs of them are. We are pretty familiar with dehydration. The skin starts to look gaunt, the eye turrets sink in, and, when offered water, your chameleon will lap it up with urgency – well, at least the slow chameleon version of urgency. A healthy, hydrated chameleon does not go to water. They let water come to them. Dehydration will be my primary concern during my incorporation of new techniques. The other limit is over-hydration.

wait…over hydration? That’s a thing? We have all been battling dehydration so much we didn’t even consider over hydration.

I am afraid, like food, supplements, UVB, and anything else going into the body, there can be too little and too much water intake. And for us to truly be effective in evaluating new methods of anything we need to understand the extremes. So, even though over-hydration is not a common occurrence we need to do our due diligence and understand what it looks like.

Over hydration also takes a toll. The body bloats and the chameleon struggles to hold its  body upright. It will take on an overweight appearance. Over-hydration could happen if the chameleon is placed in a spray of water and has no way of getting out. Though they can stop drinking there is a reflexive drinking process where water will come in through the nostrils and the chameleon could take it in. As a daily occurrence this could, conceivably, be an issue. Now you may be scoffing at the odds against you thinking this could happen. But this exercise is not about convincing anyone of the likelihood of these happening, it is you coming up with every possible scenario that either of the extremes could be reached and watching out for them.

Perhaps our most important preparation for this experiment is to establish a measurement guide that we can use to get an idea on how hydrated our chameleons is from day to day.

So we need a measurement systems to watch our progress and use it as a guide to tell us when we need to make corrections. And we find those in feces and urates. The feces are the compressed brown portion of the poop. The urates are the white and orange portion.

Feces and urates are the results of the processing of all the food input. Everything the body needs from the food is removed in the stomach and intestines. What remains is the indigestible parts that will be compressed together in a tight, typically brown package to be jettisoned later. But there is another part to the waste process. The kidneys are also hard at work to filter the blood and keep it clean. In us humans, urine is produced to carry these toxins out of the body. In chameleons, a white sludge called urates is produced and tacked onto the fecal waste for the upcoming exit. As we experience ourselves, water is a necessary component for this processing and the amount of water in the urine and feces fluctuates with our hydration level. So too it is with chameleons – and this is our chance!

Water is used in the chameleon kidneys to produce the urates. The urates then go through the intestines and this is where the chameleon reclaims the water so as to not waste precious moisture. The amount of water reclaimed from the urates varies depending on the hydration level of the chameleon. The drier the environment and the more water is needed, the more water is sucked back out. When water is removed, the urates crystallize into an orangish colored substance. From field observation (P. Necas, pers comm), normal content of orange in the urates is 15 to 50% of the urates. If there is greater orange content then the chameleon’s body is wanting more moisture back and that is a sign that we need to provide more hydration in the appropriate form. If the urates are totally white then the body has more than enough moisture and Is actually rejecting the normal water reclaiming process. In this way, the urates can give us a window into our chameleon’s hydration level. Of course, nothing can be simple. How much orange should be present is subject of debate. It is common for veterinarians to advise to hydrate until urates are completely white. The logic is that if the body does not extract any water it doesn’t need to and your chameleon is hydrated. But this isn’t what is observed in the wild. So do we target our hydration to what is observed in the wild or do we decide to give it the ole superior conditions approach that we like to do in captivity to make our super specimens? And I fully admit that my personal decision to target up to 50% orange in the urates is based on the field observations of Petr Necas. And there really isn’t much more. He is one of the few field scientists that keep captive husbandry and field observations in mind at the same time to determine their relationships. I have asked a number of other field scientists and apparently, they had better things to do than observe the composition of wild urates. So, admittedly, the data sources are limited. In this case, which do you choose to trust? It is really up to you. Both measurement scales have been in use and neither has left bodies of chameleons in the streets. So, it is a subtle effect. But it is an important issue to consider.

Why would we do this? What is broken that we are trying to fix?

Half my listeners are excited for this new, more naturalistic approach. The other half are asking the glaring and completely valid question: why change how we do things? What is broken that we are trying to fix? The commonly kept chameleons are already living longer in captivity than they would in the wild. Do we really need to re-evaluate? The answer is, yes, at least some of us do. We need to constantly re-evaluate.  If you are listening to this podcast you have probably gotten the idea that we are on a journey. It is not me sharing end all be all chameleon secrets and extracting information from others. It is the record of my personal growth and the continual growth of our community.  I have invited you to come along as we explore this process via this podcast. But that means I am constantly growing and challenging my husbandry methods. It means I am striving to make my husbandry as close to what we see in their normal environment. We have multiple milestones ahead for our community. Our current husbandry is insufficient for successful breeding almost every species of chameleon. Granted, panthers, veileds, and carpet chameleons are doing pretty well. Parsons, quadricornis, Jackson’s, and even deremensis have had success. But shouldn’t we be logging many more species? So yes, it is still very much our responsibility to continue to push forward!

Who should try this? 

So, say you are sold. Who should try this? Is this expert level? Well, if you are listening to this podcast then you are a qualified candidate! There really is nothing hard about this. You are doing the same checks and balances on your chameleon’s health as you are with day hydration. It is totally laid out in this podcast how to do it. No tricks or expert experience needed. Assuming we continue the success we are seeing, this will slowly integrate into our community and become the norm. Work needs to be done to hammer out what differences in application there may be between species. I have tested this with Jackson’s, veileds, and panthers. My parsonii are already outdoors, but I look forward to testing them next winter. The ultimate test will be when the melleri keeping members of our community try this and report back on whether their Melleri still drink as much during the day.

We are still learning. My goal and passion here on this podcast is to explore these topics. If I go a year and have not changed any aspect of my husbandry for the better I am concerned that I may be growing lax. There is no glory in changing just to change. But we still have a long way to go to explore the true lifespan of our chameleons in captivity. There is still so much more to figure out.  I certainly do not have all the answers, but that is what makes this so exciting! I am really not sure what I will do once we have all the answers. I am pretty certain that is no time soon.


And there is another reason why we do what we do and always need to challenge ourselves. I have children listening to this podcast. I know because they write me. And to you young people, you guys are just starting out. You have forty years..give or take…before you are where I am. I’d like you to remember this moment. Chameleons are living four to seven years on average for the most common species. When you guys are starting your podcast or your video channel or whatever they are going to have in this future of ours I hope we have doubled that average. We already have chameleon outliers that reach those levels so it isn’t a leap to think we can bring up the average. There are a number of people working tirelessly to get our husbandry to that level. Our intention is that you inherit a community better than us seasoned individuals came into it with. You are going to have to be patient. We are still working through a number of these basics. We are struggling with our short sightedness, wracking our brains to unlock the secrets that are usually right in front of our eyes, and making mistakes. Case in point, you just listened to an entire podcast re-evaluating the hydration methods I thought I knew. If the previous methods were not totally right then how do I know this one is? The answer is that I don’t. But I am okay with no answer being 100% right. Just like most previous answers were not 100% wrong.  The answer is that just the act of trying out each and every reasonable possibility means we will move forward. The path may not be straight, but it will go forward. Even if it is to prove something doesn’t work. So, kids, if there is one thing you take away from everything you are watching please let it not be a collection of facts. We will certainly hand you the book of knowledge with our chapter as finished as possible. But please take from this not just the conclusions, but the quest. The drive. The humility. The insatiable hunger to learn more. And remember, every wrong turn and dead end is part of the process. Goodness knows, we have collected enough of those along the way. Please inherit the responsibility of creating a better world for the nine and ten year olds of your generation.  Now, you don’t get the book just yet. We, ah, “seasoned individuals” have a heck of a lot more to add to the chameleon book of knowledge. Just know that we know you are there. And we know we are creating the compendium of knowledge that you will inherit. We take this responsibility seriously. So kids – and that means young people and people young in chameleons -just hang tight and buckle up. This ride will be bumpy, but we are going to see and learn some incredible things.




Labordi Longevity


Calyptratus Longevity:

Pers Comm with Petr Necas over podcast interviews.


Human breath gives moisture to the air

Loss of water due to breathing in Anolis