Trioceros jacksonii: Jackson’s Chameleons as Pets

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Nine things you need to know about Jackson's Chameleons

1) Jackson's Chameleons do not like to be held

This may seem obvious, but this is a good time for a reminder of what kind of pet any chameleon makes. They are pets that like to be left alone. So if you are looking for a pet that can be handled and have human interaction then a chameleon will be a poor choice. They are amazing and it would be wonderful if they were affectionate or even tolerant of us humans, but, unfortunately, that is not what a chameleon is. And, despite the people who insist that they can tame chameleons down, you really can only get them to be used to your presence.

Chameleons are best left alone in a heavily plants cage and enjoyed from a distance. You can feed them and they will get used to you being nearby as they eat. And some individuals get tame enough that they will eat while sitting in your hand. Female Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleons seem more prone to getting this tame and I have had a number that would allow me to carry them into the garden to pick off whatever insects happen to be buzzing by. But do not expect or try to force this level of interaction. It either comes or it doesn’t. Go into the relationship with the idea that you will not include handling as your usual interaction with your chameleon.

That said, there is no harm in occasional handling to check health or move them from cage to cage. Jackson’s chameleons are usually calm tempered and will accept this without an issue. And this is often their downfall as keepers interpret this as them enjoying the handling session. Chameleons are not fast animals and they know camouflage is their best defense. So they know that running away will fail. Thus they will sit in your hand or on some toy still hoping you will go away. Too many humans take this as a sign that the chameleon is having fun (or else it would try to get away) and the chameleon is subjected to great amounts of stress. There is no shortage of people who fancy themselves the exception because animals love them and they are so in tune with all life. The damage these well meaning people do to their chameleons is unfortunate.

appreciating a jacksons chameleon

Jackson’s Chameleons do not like to be held, but there are ways to interact so that it reduces the stress tot he chameleon. Allowing the chameleon to rest on a plant is one way to do this. It is not a perfect way as the chameleon will not feel completely safe until it is far away fro you, but it gives them a more familiar feel than your hand. But be careful there is not an escape route for them to climb to.

using a stick to show a chameleon

Although Jackson’s Chameleons should be left alone for the most part, there is enormous value in exposing non-reptile people and children to chameleons in a very controlled way. The saying “we save what we love” is true. And being fascinated by a chameleon can inspire children to grow up into adults that will value the areas where chameleons come from. You do not want to compromise your chameleon’s health, but infrequent visits outside of its cage and having a stick to perch on is acceptable. But they should not be played with.

eating from hand chameleon

Some individuals do tame down and will tolerate some direct interaction. This female has slight annoyance when I would pick her up, but forgot all about that when she saw food. I have had a number of female Yellow-crested that developed this level of tameness, but there would be no way for me to tell which ones would and wouldn’t. Once you get a chameleon you must accept them for what they are, whatever that is!

2) Jackson's Chameleon personality

Jackson’s Chameleons are usually mild mannered. Each chameleon is an individual, but if we were to look at the species as an average, they would be considered a calm chameleon. Very few Jackson’s Chameleons would consider biting quickly or running wildly around the cage to avoid your hand. If you stick your hand into their cage they are most likely to stay in place and be highly annoyed. But they will do it in a subtle way. And it is this subtle personality that mean you have to be very attuned to chameleon behavior to accurately understand what your chameleon is telling you. A quick review of Chameleon Behavior is a good use of time.

And it is this subtle personality that gets them in trouble. Jackson’s Chameleons often elect to stand their ground when they feel threatened. They are not fast so they give up when trapped. Anyone seeing the energy in the Veiled or Panther Chameleons would not be ready to read the calm protest of the Jackson’s Chameleon. You probably will not get biting or gaping or lunging at your fingers. You will not get a break neck sprint away from you. And so it is important that you do not read into this that they like play time or to be held.

3) There are different types of Jackson's Chameleon

There are actually three recognized species of Jackson’s Chameleon. The most commonly seen is the Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon, or Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus. This is the largest of the subspecies and is the one that spawned the idea that female Jackson’s Chameleons do not have horns. This is (mostly) true only of Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleons. In both the other subspecies, the Machakos Hills Jackson’s Chameleon and the Mt. Meru Jackson’s Chameleon, the females have one to three horns. And yes, this has led to some unexpected surprises with babies showing up. Scientists are working on better describing the Jackson’s Chameleon group and so there may be changes ahead. But all you need to know at this point is that there are a number of different types you may run into. They are described below.

  1. Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon from Hawaii (Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus). This is the largest of the subspecies with both the males and females being a wonderful green. The males have three large horns and the females do not. The females will have horn nubs and very rare specimens have a developed nose horn. Most of the ones seen inthe US pet trade are from a feral population in Hawaii. There has been some genetic drift due to a genetic bottleneck and so if you plan on breeding them I highly recommend searching for Kenyan bloodlines. But Hawaiian bloodlines are great if you are simply wanting one as a pet.
  2. Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon from Kenya (Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus). These are the parent stock and are the prefered bloodlines for breeding. They are more expensive than the ones from Hawaii
  3. Machakos Hills Jackson’s Chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii jacksonii). This is a smaller Jackson’s than the Yellow-crested. This one is found in the Machakos Hills region in Kenya. The males have the three horns and a bright yellow splash across their flank and blue cheeks. The females have one to three horns. This one is often sold under trade names such as True Kenyan Jackson’s, Rainbow Jackson’s, or Willigen’s Jackson’s.
  4. Mt. Meru Jackson’s Chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii merumontanus). This is a smaller Jackson’s Chameleon and is found on Mt. Meru in Tanzania. The availability of the Mt. Meru Jackson’s is spotty due to instability of the Tanzanian government. The males can be mottled to bright blues and greens and yellows. Their horns are surprisingly long for such a little chameleon. The females have one horn.

All varieties are taken care of basically the same. Though the Mt. Meru Jackson’s is likely to want higher UVB and lower nighttime drops due to the high altitudes it comes from. If you are interested in learning more about the different subspecies check out Jackson’s Chameleon Natural History.

Jacksons Chameleon

Male Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus, the Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon, is the largest of the three subspecies. This is the most commonly seen subspecies in the pet trade. Originally from Kenya, most individuals in the US pet trade are from the feral population on Hawaii or a transplanted population on the US mainland.

Machakos Hills Jackson's Chameleon

Male Trioceros jacksonii jacksonii. This subspecies has become a catch-all for all the undescribed subspecies of <em>T. jacksonii</em>.  The variation is immense. The most commonly seen member of this subspecies in the pet trade is from the population on the Machakos Hills in Kenya. The male is brightly colored and is the one pictured here. This locale is accurately known by the name Machakos Hills Jackson’s Chameleon.

Male Mt. Meru Jackson's Chameleon

Male Trioceros jacksonii merumontanus. Also known as the Mt. Meru Jackson’s Chameleon, this is a smaller member of the Jackson’s Chameleon species. It is brightly colored and found on Mt. Meru in Tanzania.

female jacksons chameleon

Female Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus, the female Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon is the only subspecies that does not have prominent horns.

female Machakos Hills Jacksons Chameleon

Female Trioceros jacksonii jacksonii. The females of this subspecies can have one to three horns and can be difficult to tell apart from the males.

female mt meru jacksons chameleon

Female Trioceros jacksonii merumontanus. These females have one rostral horn (on the nose).

4) Female Jackson's Chameleons are usually pregnant and give live birth

Most of the Jackson’s Chameleons available in the US are wild caught from Hawaii or, rarely, Kenya. In Europe they are generally imported from Kenya. This means that sexually mature females and males will have been mixed together. Which means that the females have probably mated if they are green in color. If you have a wild caught female Jackson’s Chameleon then be ready for babies from her. This is so important that we, of course, have the information for you on this. Jackson’s Chameleon New Born Baby Care. I need to impress upon you that it will be well worth your while to be familiar with this information. At the very least, bookmark it for the morning you walk downstairs and find 25 baby tree dragons crawling about the cage.

5) Beware: Babies are often sold too young

One of the traps with Jackson’s Chameleons is buying them cheap. It is tempting to purchase those babies for $25. But those are being sold so cheaply because they are being sold too young. A female had babies and the “breeder” (usually accidental) is try to sell them quickly so they do not have to take care of them. This is a poor way to start your chameleon keeping hobby. It can be tempting to buy cheap Jackson’s Chameleons. Especially when Kenyan captive born bloodlines can be $150. But those captive born babies have been given the best care. And their mother has been given the best care over a long term. Compare that with the reptile distributor that got a wild caught female in stressed and is trying to offload the babies as quickly as possible. There is no optimal care being given to these poor chameleons. And now you are starting your chameleon keeping project with a handicap. I have a Facebook page that specializes in Jackson’s Chameleons (Jackson’s Chameleon Community) and we are called upon on a regular basis to try and help a new keeper save his baby Jackson’s that was sold and shipped way too young. If you see a great deal on Jackson’s Chameleon babies I suggest you give it a pass. try and get one from a reputable breeder. You can find them on that Facebook page.

The pictures below show a rough growth around the ages that you would usually be getting a Jackson’s Chameleon. It is useful to note some general signs of age to know what you are getting into. Though please use this as a rough guide. growth and maturity rates can be different and some chameleons can be fully healthy and take longer to “green up” (for Yellow-crested Jackson’s). Use the below pictures to form a general magnitude of what to look for.

baby Jacksons Chameleon

Couple Days Old: This baby male Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus, the Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon, is only a couple days old. The ones sold that are only a couple weeks old are not much bigger than this. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell age unless you have seen many of them. The important characteristic is that the males will start showing some green tinge to their bodies when they near maturity. This can happen between 6 and 9 months depending on how quickly they are grown. But the green tinge can start to come through as soon as four months old. There are many factors that determine size at a particular age. The best you can do is find a reputable breeder that you can trust. Although we state the guidelines that we want Jackson’s Chameleon sold at four months old at the minimum, the real judge is the breeder that knows the babies from birth and  knows the level of vigor. One again, your most important job is to find a good breeder.

4 month old Jackson's

Four Months Old: This juvenile male Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus, the Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon, is starting to show some unmistakeable horn growth and there are times when the green tinge of maturity teases an appearance. At this point they are vigorous and well started. Different groups will grow at different paces so the group you are considering may or may not show green at four months old so you will be trusting the breeder to make a good judgement as to when the baby is established enough to go to a new home. Breeders that establish a good line of communication with you are much easier to trust.

4 month old Jackson's

Five Months Old: This juvenile male Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus, the Yellow-crested Jackson’s Chameleon, is showing a more robust appearance and the green does not fade in and out with the baby colors. It is in transition to the adult greens.

6) You CANNOT keep them as pairs

This fact has been elevated to a main issue because so many people selling Jackson’s Chameleons will say you can keep them together as a pair. The reason keepers, and even breeders, can go so long with this misconception is that Jackson’s Chameleons are typically mild-mannered. While Veiled Chameleons and Panther Chameleons will flare up and be quite dramatic when they meet, Jackson’s Chameleons are not always so obvious. That, coupled with the human desires to pair things up and to simply have more chameleons, condemns many Jackson’s Chameleons to a slow downward spiral in health until some complication becomes noticeable (such as one growing much slower than the other). But since the keeper just noticed it they do not connect it with co-habitation because “they have been doing so well together”.  I have been involved with countless keepers who just do not want to believe that Jackson’s Chameleons need to be kept separate. One sign of an inexperienced breeder is that they do not understand this. Tragically, they spread this deadly husbandry error as a sign of pride that they know something the old timers don’t. Here’s the secret. The old timers all tried it and learned the hard way. We earned that wisdom so you don’t have to. Please don’t waste our experience! You don’t have to go through the long and ultimately heartbreaking experience yourself! One chameleon per cage. Do you want two chameleons? Get two cages. And let me state this another way. There are many different ways of doing things in the chameleon world. Keeping chameleons together is one thing that has been tried ad nasuem over the decades and ends up with chameleons slowly dying of constant stress. This is not a matter of opinion or perspective. Just do not do it and anyone who says you can do it should be under immediate suspicion of inexperience and be very careful what you listen to from them. Note that babies can survive together for a little while. But every day they are together is a compromise. There are ways of getting away with this, but the older they get the more risk is being taken.

7) "Sudden Death" Syndrome

If you hang around the community for any length of time you are likely to run into people talking about how some people have a die off of their babies around the 3 month mark. This is why we breeders want to wait until four months to send out our babies. The reason people see these die offs is not clear. And many breeders do not see die offs. The most likely scenarios are one or a combination of the following

  1. Babies are being cohabitated in close conditions
  2. Babies are not getting enough of a nighttime drop
  3. Babies are running out of a vitamin or nutrient

All three of these are difficult to track. I have listed them in the order of probability. Both cohabitation and lack of nighttime drops produce a constant low-grade stress that builds over time so what appears to be a sudden death was actually a gradual decline. Babies running out of a nutrient (such as vitamin A) is possible, but this has not been proven.

At this point, it is important for you to realize this is an issue many people run into and this is one major reason why it is a good idea to get a four month old baby.

8) Cool Temperatures and Nighttime Drop

Jackson’s Chameleons come from high altitudes and so have developed to thrive in cool temperatures (70s) and distinct nighttime drops (low 60s or below). Although there is no study that we can point to that says just how low they need and for how long they can tolerate higher temperatures, tribal knowledge in the community places importance on a nighttime drop. If you are intending to bring a Jackson’s Chameleon into your home ensure that you have the means to keep them in the high 70s and drop down 10-15 degrees or more at night. During the day, Jackson’s Chameleons start to show heat stress in the high 80s and are in trouble in the 90s.

9) Do NOT cut corners on your set-up!

The best thing you can do is spend the money up front for your chameleon set-up. Get the largest cage possible, the best lighting, and best hydration system. Do not cut corners on your set-up. Whatever you save up front will be paid many times over at the veterinarian to fix the health issue. Chameleon keeping is not a cheap hobby. But the rumor that chameleons are sensitive animals that die easily is incorrect. Once they are well established – captive born in a proper caging set-up – they are very hardy and will live many years. The best advice I can give is to do it right the first time. That doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive things out there, but make sure you do not compromise on quality.


Your next step is to study the husbandry requirements carefully and ensure that you have all the equipment necessary to have many years with your chameleon. Jackson’s Chameleons are my favorite and I cannot imagine ever being without one and if I had to pick just one chameleon to keep it would be the Jackson’s Chameleon. Please go on to the next module linked to below which will take you to the care guide.


This seminar is part of the Jackson’s Chameleon Profile.

Jackson's Chameleon Home Room

Jackson's Chameleon

Next Module: Purchasing a Jackson's Chameleon

captive born jacksons chameleon