Introduction to the Panther Chameleon
Panther Chameleons are the most commonly bred species in the chameleon community. Their bright colors make them instant favorites. A Panther Chameleon is the perfect first chameleon due to their appeal, hardiness, and wide support network.
Furcifer pardalis, the panther chameleon, is widespread along the coastal regions in the northern third of Madagascar. It inhabits the lowlands and islands. Panther Chameleons have the characteristic that each locale has a distinctive coloration. Almost the entire rainbow of colors is represented in panther chameleon locales. Although purple has been difficult to find in the wild, it has come out in captive breeding – so the genes are there!
The males are larger than the females and brightly colored. The females are an overall orange/peachy color, though, when gravid can become a deep black with orange stripes.
The community has identified the different morphs by their locale. Names such as Nosy Be, Ambanja, and Ambilobe are locations in Madagascar that you may visit.
Every location of panther chameleon seems to have a different palette of colors. There are no significant differences in husbandry for the locales imported. Though it would be interesting to find out if animals collected in the upper elevations would require a nighttime drop or if the entire species merely has tolerance from o to 950 meters above sea level. Shown below are only a hand full of the different morphs!
Male wild caught from the island Nosy Be showing the variation that can be found.
Some individuals on Nosy Be were almost all blue. This is an F1 panther from blue wild caught parents. Not every baby in this clutch was all blue. This image was taken in 2001. Since then the blue color has been refined and is now reliable in certain captive lines.
A chameleon from the Ambilobe area.
An unnaturally red individual from Ambilobe parents.
Some females tend toward the gray side, though this is not a reliable method of telling locale.
When gravid, females of all locales will turn black with orange stripes to warn males that they are not receptive.
Panther Chameleons have definite personalities. They can be shy, outgoing, or even friendly. They are highly intelligent as far as chameleons go and will learn your schedule and develop expectations surrounding meal times if you are consistent.
For the most part, panther chameleons will calm down enough to be handled without much drama. They are chameleons so handling should be kept to a minimum, but Panther Chameleons have a respectable tolerance for us humans.
Each panther chameleon is an individual so you’ll have to judge them for who they are. I have had some that were prone to biting. Though this is done in defense and to get away. You will get warning signs before there is a bite. The bite of an adult can break skin, but there is little damage to brag about. Your boa keeping friends will not be impressed.
Panther Chameleon Care Summary
Panther Chameleon Care Summary distills the most important aspects of husbandry care into an easily referenced handout. But chameleon care is, unfortunately, much more involved than can be presented on a summary sheet. Therefore, you may use this sheet as a reference and return to this page where we will go over each and every aspect that is on the summary sheet in detail.
Cage Type and Size
The minimum cage size for both males that allows the creation of a suitable environment is 2’ x 2’ x 4’ tall, but males do get to a size where a wider cage would be appreciated. If possible, a cage at least 30″ wide will provide the extra space to make males less cramped.
Females are smaller. I would recommend getting at least a 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cage, but they can be effectively kept in a 18″ x 18″ x 36″ cage. It pains me to write that as larger cages are not that more expensive and the experience is demonstrably better in the larger cage. So, although I must be honest that they can live in a 36″ cage, I highly encourage you go to the same size cage as you get for the male.
Panther Chameleons have proven to do well in screen cages. They have been kept that way for decades. But it would be difficult to reach their optimal conditions in a screen cage in the typical human household. A daytime humidity of 50%-60% is challenging unless a number of the sides are solid. A cage with at least three solid sides would allow greater humidity control. These cages can be purchased or a screen cage may be lined with shower curtain or plastic tarp.
House panther chameleons individually.
Panther Chameleons are housed in the Forest Edge style cage interior. A forest edge cage provides the open basking area and the densely leafy area where they can retreat, hide, and feel safe. This retreat area is critical for their well being. Notice in the pair of cages shown here that there are distinct open and leafy areas. This is what a Forest Edge cage will look like. The most overlooked aspect of a chameleon cage is the visual retreat where the chameleon can hide away when they desire privacy. This is critical for creating an effective chameleon environment.
Note: In the cage pair shown, a visual barrier was set-up between the cages once the babies in the cages grew to six months old. Seeing other babies chameleons is not an issue. It is when they are inhabiting the same space that relationships become nasty. A visual barrier was put up when they were starting to become sexually mature as just the sight of a male near by can sometimes start the reproductive cycle and the female can cycle with an infertile clutch of eggs.
Panther Chameleons live in coastal regions so warm and humid conditions are expected. And ambient temperature of mid to high 70s F is sufficient with a basking temperature in the mid 80s F. The nighttime temperature can comfortably be in the high 60s F.
Panther Chameleons have been shown to be tolerant of low temperatures below 60F, but it can take a toll on their body over time.
A lower nighttime temperature in the mid 60s F to low 70s F is normal and healthy for your Panther Chameleon. But your chameleon will need to warm up in the morning to get a good start on the day. In the wild, chameleons look to the sun rise and bask until their body temperature is sufficient for optimal hunting, digestion, and general function.
In captivity we give them this warm up through a basking bulb which is usually an incandescent bulb shining on their basking branch.
We need to be careful when setting up this bulb as it is very easy to burn your chameleon. Chameleons do not seem to have a keen sense of when they are being burned. And this is the reason that we will be encouraging basking bulbs to be mounted above the cage instead of on the cage top. The closer to the bulb, the more difference in temperature can happen in an inch. The ideal scenario is to have a higher wattage bulb further away. This produces a wider, and “gentler” heated area that has no burn risk.
For temperature we are looking for something in the mid to upper 80s. But the exact temperature is not that important. It is more important to set it up so you feel a warm and gentle heat on the back of your hand when you place it where the top of the head of your chameleon would be when he is basking. Your main purpose is to set up a safe temperature to start with and then you will adjust the bulb distance based on your chameleon’s behavior. If your chameleon shows the following behaviors, bring the bulb closer
- Huddling under the bulb for more than 30 minutes
- Hanging from the top screen panel under the bulb
- Remaining dark and lethargic. After basking, they should take on resting colors.
The issue with relying on behaviors as a signal to move the bulb further away is that they generally are physical damage to the body such as gray burned areas, open wounds, and melted back spines. And it is concerning how long this kind of situation goes on before the keeper realizes what is going on. So this means the chameleon is basking even though it is too hot. Thus it is better to start too low rather than too high. The mid 80s is safe to start off with. Hold your hand there for a minute. Is it a pleasant warming experience? If so, then that is a good place to start.
Panther Chameleons experience humid days and higher humidity nights. A nighttime humidity of 75% to 100% and then a drop to 50-60% during the day will be sufficient. The exact numbers are not critical. There are two important aspects. 1) during high humidity times keep the air moving. Often cages are modified to enclose sides to impede airflow so a fogger can increase humidity. In this case have a ceiling fan or computer fan mounted to the top of the cage make sure that the “fog bank” circulates. Stagnant air, regardless of how humid, is unhealthy. 2) All surfaces must be dry during the day. Even if humidity is higher than the numbers listed, if the surfaces are dry then there shouldn’t be a health problem. It is when surfaces, such as the branches the chameleon climbs on are constantly wet the feet get sores and bacteria/fungus/mold is able to take a hold.
Panther Chameleons take the standard bright light that we put on our chameleon cages. A quad High Output T5 fixture the width of your cage with four 6500K fluorescent bulbs will light a 4’ tall cage nicely. A 12 hours on and 12 hours off cycle is used.
Your chameleon will need it bright inside his cage. The biggest cage deficiency behind no hiding place, is insufficient light where, when you look at the cage, the chameleon looks like it is in a cave with a skylight. A bright cage will allow plants to grow and your environment to be vibrant.
Natural sunlight through a window is excellent, but dangerous. Sunlight tends to be too powerful and could overheat your chameleon. Be careful with sunlight.
The most effective and reliable way to producing UVB for your chameleon is with linear T5 high output fluorescent tubes. These bulbs may go into a multi-bulb fixture, but are most effective in a single bulb reflector. I highly recommend using a single bulb reflector for your UVB source as it gives you not only the full power of the bulb (your UVB gets soaked up by other bulbs), but it gives you full control over the UVB strength that hits the basking area depending on how high you raise the fixture above the cage. But if a multi-bulb fixture is the only option then you simply get a high power UVB bulb.
Our target level is a UVI of 2-3 at the Panther Chameleon’s basking branch to a maximum of 6 at the top of the cage for sufficient vitamin D3 synthesis. These numbers are derived from what is known as the Ferguson zones and are a good base to work from. Please reference the section on implementing UVB to learn about the equipment and set-up to achieve these levels.
UVB Meters are an expensive piece of equipment, but are a valuable tool in setting up your chameleon’s environment. If you can get one – do it!
Setting up the lighting and hydration schedule
When we set up our daily schedule we are attempting to replicate the wild conditions that the chameleon has grown to expect. Let’s start at midnight.
At midnight the chameleon has been asleep for many hours. It is dark and, although the moon waxes and wanes, chameleons will seek out dark places to sleep. They see light of all colors just fine and any light can disturb their rest.
As the early morning progresses the humidity rises. Fog banks can start to form and the chameleon is breathing in moist air. This high humidity forms an important part in their natural hydration. To simulate this, we turn ultrasonic humidifiers on around 1:30AM. The fog from the humidifiers tends to bounce off of surfaces and roll out the cage so we run the misting system for a couple of minute to coat the cage in a layer of water. This helps the fogger be more effective and the fog tends to stick around. The fogger go from 1:30 to 6:00 in a 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off pattern. This is to protect against too much fog. This is wise when you have closed in three or more sides of your cage to retain humidity. If you have a completely screen cage then you may leave it on the entire time. This all is done so the chameleon can breathe in the humidity. Just before the lights come on the misters are run for another couple of minute to make sure that when the chameleon wakes up it wakes up to surfaces covered in “dew”. This is a natural source of water for them even in their dry season. Once the dew is laid down the lights can come on.
Around 7AM the daylights come on. This can include the UVB light if they are the same fixture. If they are separate fixtures then save turning the UVB light on to correspond to when the basking bulb is switched on. I like to leave the daylight bulbs on for 15 or 30 minutes to give the chameleon a chance to leisurely lick whatever dew they want. I then turn the basking bulb on so they can warm themselves up.
As the ambient temperatures start to warm there is no longer the need for a basking lamp and it is shut off. The chart shows it going off at 10:00AM. The actual time that the basking lamp is on will depend on your chameleon’s needs. Watch the behavior. If they routinely get the warmth they need in 30 minutes and then climb away with content colors to hunt then reduce your basking time to that time plus 15 minutes that they make use of the warmth. If they need the warmth for a longer period of time then leave the basking bulb on longer or consider increasing the temperature slightly. Watch your chameleon and they will tell you what they need.
Sometime during the day (I start at 3PM) start your dripper. This is a backup hydration strategy just to make sure they have enough water. While it is true they do not have drippers every day in the wild during the dry season, they also are not needing to reconstitute dry calcium powder on all their feeders. The advantage of running a dripper is that it is completely optional for them and, as a bonus, it also allows you the opportunity to ensure your plants get watered. Place it above a different plant each day and through out the week, all plants will get watered. It is not critical when you start the dripper. In this schedule I have it in the late afternoon so that the chameleon can rehydrate before the evening rest. I suggest starting the dripper an hour or so after feeding them so they can replenish what they need. In the wild, their food is a major source of hydration. We mess that up a bit with our powders and a dripper is a way we make up for that. Ideally, the chameleon will have gotten enough hydration from the moist night air, morning dew, and food items. I consider it a success when the chameleon ignores the dripper and an early warning sign when he drinks from the dripper.
Once the chameleon settles in and goes to sleep I like to have a couple minutes misting just to set up the night humidity.
You’ll notice there are no daytime mistings. Although this is common in chameleon husbandry, and I did it myself, I have transitioned my mistings to the sleep hours. Chameleons have been consistent in their communicating that they do not like being sprayed. I have given up deciding I know what is best for them and started to listen to them. The night fog, morning dew and the afternoon dripper provide the necessary hydration in a natural way. With those provided there just isn’t a need to force them into a shower in the middle of the day.
Panther Chameleons are enthusiastic eaters. Although they are not a ravenous as veiled chameleons, they can become unhealthfully overweight. Therefore it is important that their food intake be monitored. The job of the babies is to grow as fast as possible so as babies they should be fed as much as they can eat. But between 6 and 9 months old, reduce feeding to five food items every other day. Once they get to their adult size you can reduce the feeding even further to three well gutloaded, supplemented feeders every other day. Obesity in Panther Chameleons is a common but very rarely recognized ailment. And it can cause complications for females. Excess food will result in more eggs being developed and the fat pads around the hips enlarged. The enlarged fat pads can put pressure on the oviduct and make it difficult to pass the eggs. With the egg load too high and unable to pass the chameleon can easily die from egg binding. This is preventable through a disciplined diet. Once it is obvious that the female is gravid, though, you can increase the food items to as much as she will eat. Once her body has already determined how many eggs will be used, then it is important to give her the all the nutrients necessary to create healthy eggs. This should only last a month. Once eggs are laid, give her a week of as much as she will eat to recover. And then you can return to the 3 pieces/every other day routine.
Introduction to Supplementation
Supplementation is one of the least defined aspects of chameleon husbandry. We literally do not know what they need. We are guessing. The best we can do is try to get as close to their natural processes as possible and test regimens out.
There will be a number of approaches that work. The bottom line test is whether it produces a healthy, long lived chameleon. If it does then it is valid!
The Chameleon Academy Supplementation Approach
The supplementation routine chosen for our recommendation is designed to use be as close to nature as we can with what we know now. According to what we (think we) know, chameleons do not get a significant amount of vitamin D3 or vitamin A in their diet. Vitamin D3 comes from UVB and Vitamin A comes from…somewhere. We are still working out those details. Thus it is simple to know how to remove dietary D3. We provide sufficient UVB exposure. Removing preformed vitamin A from the diet is a bit tricky as some breeders can have generations of healthy babies with no dietary preformed vitamin A, while others will encounter birth defects, low survivability, and eye health issues unless preformed vitamin A is added. Thus, vitamin A remains a major hole in our understanding of chameleon nutrition. The most obvious suspect is the carotenoids within the gutloaded insects. Many animals use these to create vitamin A. A study done showed that beta carotene, the most commonly converted carotenoid in humans, was not, at least in isolation, converted by panther chameleons. More study will have to be done to determine which of (or if) the other carotenoids are being converted. But there is no known consistent source of preformed vitamin A in the wild chameleons’ diet. So it has to come from somewhere.
The Chameleon Academy supplementation schedule relies on 1) the presence of UVB in the strength of between UV Index 2 to 3 for D3 conversion and 2) a rich gutload of feeder insects.
The Pre-Requisite of UVB levels at UV Index 2-3
The Chameleon Academy Supplementation Routine relies heavily on the chameleon producing its own Vitamin D3 from UVB exposure. This uses the natural body mechanisms designed for this purpose. This is highly desirable as vitamin D3 is fat soluble and can be overdosed and can cause serious health issues. Going through the natural process has a natural cut off where the body will stop producing D3 when it has enough. It maintains optimal levels in a way that we have no possible way of replicating. With sufficient UVB, dietary D3 may be removed from the regimen. Until more information is known, I am recommending two dustings a month of Repashy Calcium Plus LoD with that moderate amount of D3 as an insurance policy. I look forward to being able to remove that recommendation!
The Pre-Requisite of Gutloaded Feeders
In all instances, feeders should be richly gutloaded with a variety of fruits and grains. They must be cared for with proper heat and even, we are learning, exposure to UVB. This creates the most healthy, nutrition packed feeder for your chameleon. Supplements are just that – a supplement to a properly gutloaded, healthy feeder insect. Supplements will not make up for a poorly fed feeder insect. Every supplementation routine requires a properly gutloaded feeder insect.
Supplementation for Every Feeding
Calcium will be given every feeding. Calcium is all around our world. Chameleons take in calcium through diet so this is the natural way they get it. And unused calcium flows through the digestive tract and out the other end so there is not a danger of overdose due to feeding too much calcium. Therefore we will dust each feeding with calcium.
The every feeding supplement should be, at least, plain calcium. I have chosen the Arcadia EarthPro-A supplement as the every-feeding supplement because
- No D3 and no vitamin A. Therefore there are no fat soluble vitamins to overdose or cause edema.
- Bee pollen ingredient. This “superfood” is a natural component in a chameleon’s diet. Although we keepers are generally panicked when a bee gets near our chameleon, do you notice how quickly they run over to eat it? They know they are getting good nutrition from this food item. (and, no, the stinger does not cause an issue in digestion)
- Rich carotenoids included. We do not know which carotenoid(s) chameleons use as their pro-vitamin A (what they use to create retinol – also known as vitamin A), but the special focus of EarthPro-A to include a wide variety of carotenoids without relying on Beta Carotene is our best option to work this problem out. If we are to remove pre-formed vitamin A out of the diet, EarthPro-A is the best hope of all the available supplements.
An alternative, if the Arcadia EarthPro-A is not available is to use bee pollen and calcium powder mixed together. Bee pollen does not stick on its own and mixing bee pollen powder with calcium powder or crushing up bee pollen granules with calcium powder will produce an effective (and well tested) every day powder supplement. If bee pollen is not available then the third choice would be to dust with plain calcium. Remember to get calcium without D3.
Supplementation Twice A Month.
Although my ultimate goal is to remove all preformed vitamin A from the diet, I am not to the point where I can be comfortable advising a supplementation routine without vitamin A which I can be confident will work in most cases. To be clear, there are breeders who are maintaining their massive collections without pre-formed vitamin A. And, as soon as I can recreate their success repeatedly across the most common species, I will excitedly remove pre-formed vitamin A from my recommendation! But I must do more testing across entire lifecycles of diverse species before I can celebrate that success. Thus, until I, personally, crack that code and can share the solution, I must recommend a bi-weekly supplementation of a supplement that contains retinol, also known as pre-formed vitamin A.
We have to be careful on this one as many manufacturers claim to have vitamin A, but what they really have is beta-carotene which is that carotenoid that we humans use to convert into retinol. We chameleon keepers have that study that, unfortunately, suggests that beta carotene is not effective for us. Though this study was done for panther chameleons. We do not know how similar chameleons from other genus are. So you have to look at the ingredients list to verify that is really in there. I will be recommending the Repashy Calcium Plus LoD because it has both vitamin A and relatively low levels of Vitamin D3. While we really do not know how much vitamin A is safe, by using the lower dose we have a finer control over how much is being given if we have to adjust our dosage due to individual animal sensitivities.
A nutrition regimen consisting of Arcadia Earthpro-A, Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, a UV Index of 3, and richly gutloaded feeder insects will provide nutrition for a chameleon over each of its life stages.
Supplementation is just one component of the nutrition strategy. You must also have both a UV Index of 3 and feeder insects that are richly gutloaded for the Chameleon Academy supplementation regimen to work properly.
The Arcadia EarthPro-A supplement was chosen as the every-feeding supplement because, in addition to calcium and basic B vitamins, it has bee pollen and carotenoids as major components. Bee pollen is a natural superfood while these carotenoids are the best chance we have of cracking the mystery of the vitamin A cycle in chameleons.
Repashy Calcium Plus LoD was chosen for the vitamin A requirement because it is one of the few vitamin supplements that has vitamin A in the retinol stage (preformed) and not beta carotene which appears to not be effective in chameleons.
Breeding Panther Chameleons
This is an egg laying species. Mating consists of the standard male bobbing his head and the female communicating whether she is receptive or not. A receptive female will allow the male to mount her. A non receptive female will gape, threaten, and bite the male depending on his instance. If the female is gravid she will take a black color with orange stripes to accompany the unmistakable body language saying she is gravid.
Gestation after a successful mating is about one month at which time the female will dig a hole to lay her eggs. The laying site should be in soil or a sand/soil mixture that will hold its shape. The laying receptacle can be a regular flower pot or bin of soil. It is important that this bin not be more than 6” deep. The ideal egg laying is where the female has her head just above the ground when she has turned to deposit the eggs in the hole she dug. She is looking for a solid surface under the ground (presumably the harder layers under the earth) to lay her eggs against. If given “perfect” soil conditions and no “imperfect” hard layer to lay against she will continue to dig which results in a tunneling behavior and the danger of tunnel collapse. The behavior of digging deep has been misinterpreted as the desire to dig deep and keepers then fall into the trap of giving the chameleon much deeper bins and that much more to exhaust themselves digging through.
Once laid, the eggs can be left where they are or moved to an incubator where they can hatch in 7-9 months at 72F. There have been a wide range of incubation strategies and temperatures that have proven successful.