Bill and Parson's Chameleon

S8 E1: What I Learned in Madagascar

My trip to Madagascar helped me better understand chameleon husbandry. There is something about being there and feeling the environment that cannot be substituted by just looking at numbers. This podcast and post is about what I learned by going to Madagascar, seeing chameleons in their natural habitat, and pondering how what I observed could affect how i kept chameleons. I invite you to come along with this very special episode. This episode was written from my bungalow in Andasibe, Madagascar while I watched a cyclone drop its rain on the forest.

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Welcome Chameleon Wranglers to Season eight of the Chameleon Academy Podcast! I am excited to kick this off and a little apprehensive as this is my most aggressive season ever. And by aggressive I mean with the wide variety of outreaches that will be going on. There will be some form of Chameleon Academy outreach each day of the week. But you did not come here for a bunch of housekeeping talk! You came here to kick season 8 off with a run down of my recent trip to Madagascar! So we will save the talk about outreach methods for the end where the true believers remain! Let’s just say that if you want chameleon education, you came to the right place. So, let’s get on with the show!

This is a special episode in that I am writing this from the forest of Andasibe, Madagascar. I have had an incredible two weeks of exploring forests that are the home of the 23 species of chameleons we sighted. But, more important than a species count, I was able to feel what the forests were like, both highland and lowland. I was able to feel the soils where chameleons laid their eggs. I consult with scientists and world traveling herpers all the time, of course, but there is nothing like being there yourself, seeing it with your own eyes, feeling it, and even hearing it. Today I would like to share with you what I learned while here in Madagascar. To summarize the trip would be a Herculean task so today I am going to focus on what I learned. But you can be sure elements of this trip will infuse themselves in podcasts and videos for the rest of the season!

My trip covered the Ranomafana rainforest, Ambalavao, Andasibe, and Palmarium. Those names may be unfamiliar to you, but they are regions in Central Eastern Madagascar. The interesting thing was that you don’t need to go to a national park or even the forests to see chameleons. A number of species have adapted to human encroachment and can be found along the bramble, brushy areas, and second growth forests lining the roadways. And this is where we were able to find Furcifer minor, Furcifer lateralis, and Furcifer oustaleti. So even though the national parks could be a day’s drive away from each other we would be stopping along the way whenever someone spotted a chameleon. There was rarely a dull moment!


A highlight of my trip was the Ranomafana rainforest. That is the area where I saw Calummas parsonii, oshaughnessyii, crypticum, malthe, and gastrotaenia. There was Furcifer balteatus and Brookesia supercilliaris and theili. The internet reception was surprisingly good and I was actually able to do live streams with my Instagram audience. I was not expecting that! But it really helped as I was able to communicate in real time with Dr. Mark Scherz to help identify the species of the Calumma nasutum complex. We discussed the need for some sort of ID guide for this confusing group of chameleons and so we are in discussions on how to make that happen for you all to reference. I was very happy to have been able to find the Satanic leaf tailed gecko, Uroplatus phantasticus and Uroplatus sikorae. Add to that a chorus of Indri lemurs and my experience was full.

Ranomafana Take-Aways

There were two things I took away from my time in Ranomafana. The first was the humidity. It was high during the day and I could hardly see across the park road to the trees across the way because of the mist. I am deliberately not sharing number data because I want to talk concepts. I can get numbers in many places. What was worth the long flight to literally the other side of the Earth was so I could feel it. And I felt something that numbers can not convey. The humidity was very high – but it didn’t feel stuffy. It didn’t feel oppressive. Sure, I was a sticky mess because no sweat would evaporate in the high humidity, but the air felt vibrant. And so I will be trying to recreate this feeling in the combination of misters, foggers, and fans at home to try and replicate what I felt. Now, there really wasn’t any flash of enlightenment.  The natural hydration cycle that is on every Chameleon Academy care guide describes what I felt. And it was a cooler version of what I felt in Florida. Of course, there is no reason why I would have thought I would find a surprise. I have consulted with scientists that have much more field experience than me and they did a very good job describing the experience. But having the personal experience and feeling helps me ask much more insightful questions of them and gives me a deeper understanding of their answers.

One thing that did change the way I see things was that I found a number of species sleeping at the end of thin branches which is exactly what I expected. But when we disturbed them for filming none of them dropped off the branch. And this is significant for me because I often say to give chameleons thin branches for them to feel safe and that they use thin branches so they can be inaccessible to a predator or they will be able to drop to the forest floor when disturbed to escape. Well, the chameleons I saw were sleeping at the end of thin branches, but none of them dropped to escape being disturbed by us photographers. So, time to get to the bottom of where that information came from! I checked around with some trusted field experienced chameleon researchers and found that there were some species that were flighty and would drop easily as described, but many would actually grab their branch harder! So, here is an unexpected insight and I will amend what I say to “Chameleons like to sleep at the end of thin branches so that they are inaccessible to predators.” And, I just had to fly to Madagascar to get that correction!

Another personal growth moment was when I asked why there was so much sunshine during the wet season. I had this vision of a lot more rain! It turns out that the rainy season, at least in central Eastern Madagascar, means sunshine and clear skies for much of the day, but patches of rainfall suddenly dousing everything. So as soon as the rain started falling we all took cover, but it was expected that it would be over soon and we could resume. That was, of course, until the cyclone hit, and then there was a lot of rain pounding and pounding!

Perching Height of Chameleons

One thing that got me thinking was the height at which I saw some of the smaller Calumma and Brookesia. We often have this perception that smaller chameleons live closer to the ground. This is not necessarily the case and I saw the couple inch long Calumma tjiasmantoi, it is from the tiny nasutum complex, perched high in the trees. Which brings up the idea that these little chameleons may do okay in smaller cages, but maybe we should be giving them a 2x2x4 cage as well. I think the feeling that we don’t want a small chameleon in such a large space is something we need to get over. Regardless of how big the chameleon is, it really takes a certain amount of space volume for us to be able to effectively create gradients and microclimates. I think it is maybe an overreaction to say the stump-tailed chameleon Brookesia supercilliaris needs a 2x2x4 cage, but they do like to be in bushes above the ground so lets start giving it a bit more thought.

Rainy Season

And, perhaps it is best to discuss the rainy season as a backdrop to this story. Those of us far from the equator experience our seasons as variations of hot and cold. Around the equator, including Madagascar, the seasons are more identified by the rainy and dry seasons. Though, Madagascar does experience a difference in temperature in the rainy and dry seasons, you may be surprised to hear that the dry season is actually colder than the wet season. We tend to associate dry with hot deserts. But, in reality, amount of moisture is not tied to temperature!

Anyway, people searching for chameleons usually come during their rainy season because that is when chameleons are most active. With the rain comes ample insect life for food. This is when the babies hatch, grow, mate, and lay eggs that will hatch when the next wet season comes. Eggs need to be in the ground and the chameleons grown enough that they will survive the dry season. There just isn’t a whole lot of water available and the chameleons react in ways that go from dying at the end of the wet season, hiding in holes or tree crevices, or hunkering down to wait for the next fog to deposit dew on the leaves so they can drink.

I have come during the rainy season and, during our first stop in the Ranomafana National Park I want to get a feel for how Calummas parsonii, oshaughnessyii, and crypticum live their lives. My main goal here was to contemplate our hydration techniques. Everything is wet there. It does not get much chance to dry out during the day with the high humidity and regular rain bursts. And, of course, the chameleons are surrounded by moisture during the night.

So, how does this fit in with my naturalistic hydration method I outline in the Chameleon Academy care guides? And, yes, this is exactly why I have come! I am constantly challenging our husbandry approaches – especially what I say! So, I recommend less humid days, around 50%, and no misting unless you are implementing an afternoon rain shower. Now, that seems to be a deviation from what I see in the wild. And that is true. Unfortunately, there are compromises we have to make in the confined spaces of a standard hybrid cage. We need the surfaces to dry out so we don’t get bacterial or fungal growths. So I am deviating from nature. This would be against my main guiding philosophy as my goal is to get our husbandry closer to nature. So I need to work on establishing a ventilation method that allows high humidity nights and the air flow to make sure it is not an oppressive humidity. And that definitely is a way that we can move forward. We need to figure out a way to get that high humidity without stagnant air. And, yes, this is on the list of things I will be working on this year. I have a handful of chameleon related personal growth points for 2023 that I am sure I will be sharing through out the year. Many people use fans successfully. I have used fans successfully. But before it goes on a care guide I need to do the Chameleon Academy filter on it to know it so well that I can make a formula of sorts of it. The point is that what ever I present needs to be be able to be reproduced by the wide range of people in the chameleon community. Do you ever wonder why I present the same internal cage structure that I have been for the last ten years? First of all, the floating garden style interior using the Dragon Ledges is effective and attractive. But the real value of that template is that it is easy for anyone to replicate. And that is what I work to go for with anything I present here. So, just saying “add fans for ventilation” is not good enough. Therefore I have some work ahead of me. So, stay tuned.

Now, the highlight of the trip was two events that happened the same day in Palmarium. It was this day that I was able to see freshly hatched panther chameleons scattering and I watched a female panther chameleon digging her egg laying hole. These are two events a guide could never promise to see and ones that were the most special part of the trip.

For the babies, I came across a stand of ferns along a trail that the rest of the group was using to interact with lemurs. These were wild lemurs, but, on the grounds, had come to realize that humans were no threat and often had bananas hidden on their person. So they had no problem jumping on us and crawling all over. It was an incredible experience! But I had separated from the group distracted by looking for chameleons. Lemurs are cute and all, but some of us have important work to do. We had found baby chameleons around, but this find was special because the hatchling still had the signature white sand stuck to his body. So I knew this was a freshly hatched baby. And then I saw three others scattering. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the pace where they were hatching from. I would have loved to see that. I was not successful, but it wasn’t for lack of trying! I did dig through the soil in the areas and found it very sandy and easy to dig through. Lots of thin roots made it annoying to try and make a hole, but would be no problem for a chameleon digging out.

Now this was seemingly in contrast to the female I found later that afternoon who had decided that the walking trail was the spot for her to deposit eggs.

In the early afternoon we came across a female panther chameleon digging a hole on the forest path. This path is a trail through the forest which is composed of that well-draining sand that was essentially everywhere around there. The curious thing was that she selected a spot with absolutely no cover. So she was vulnerable to any predator that came to check things out. In addition, the trail sandy soil was packed pretty hard so it was difficult to dig through. I dug a hole nearby to check it out and that was some pretty packed soil. I was surprised that she chose this digging spot when she had a whole forest behind her of easier to dig soil that had cover while she was on the ground vulnerable. But I am glad for her decisions as I was able to observe her digging. Members of my group joined me to watch her and wanted to get video of the event. If we were careful, we were safe to do this while her head was deep in the hole. But we knew as soon as she came back up to turn around to deposit eggs that we would have to go. Unfortunately, she was pretty quick about turning around once she had reached the desired depth and she caught us around her. We immediately vacated the area, but the disturbance was done and we could see her crawling up the nearest tree. We totally left the area after I did a very quick depth check. She had dug three inches down. So, if we assume about an inch of egg mass, that would mean that the babies would have two inches of soil to dig through.

I came back two and a half hours later and was very pleased to see that she had returned to her hole and completed the laying process. I caught her filling the hole back up, took a few pictures to document it, and left her to complete the job.

Now, what can we take away from this observation? The first of two big points were that if disturbed, the female may return to the hole in the wild. We have observed this phenomenon in captivity, but it was unclear whether that is because we offer very limited spaces. So it would be easy for her to find the hole again. But this observation goes to show that she will return even with the entire land mass of Madagascar to chose from to dig a second hole. Though, honestly, considering chameleons are not built for digging holes, if I were her I wouldn’t look forward to starting another hole any time soon. So it makes sense that she would not want to give up on her hard work!

The second was that she only dug three inches down. This just confirms what I had observed in semi-wild conditions with large outdoor enclosures and discussions with Madagascar field scientists that they dig relatively shallow holes. This is important because we in the captive community have had a policy to give deep containers of perfect soil to dig through which just wore the females out trying to dig to the firm levels to lay their eggs and then have the danger of the tunnel collapsing. I would have loved to have found the nest where the babies were hatching from to see how deep that hole was because the soil in that area did not have a firm layer a couple inches down. So when would they stop digging in that soil? Is that where they start looking for a root ball? And was there anything particular about the digging sites? We know in captivity that panthers aren’t that picky as far as where they lay. You can give them a perfect laying bin and they are just as likely to lay their eggs in the Pothos plant pot. There has to be some sort of selection process they go through to decide where to dig, but how selective is it?

I still have so many questions about this!

But I am taking home some conclusions and ideas to try out. The hole depth confirms that laying bins are effective at 4 to 6 inches deep. We already know that, After this trip I am going to try a 6 inch deep container with two inches of clay soil at the bottom to be a dense layer. On top of that will be four inches of sandy soil. Now, I usually just do a thin layer of pure sand on top of that because that makes it very easy to see where the eggs were laced if I miss the event. I just look for the disturbed part of the sandy surface. But I would like to try an area that has a top that includes decaying leaves. So I will experiment with a laying bin that has good drainage and will have to stay in the cage permanently. I’ll see how much that is selected by the different species. Now, to be clear, this is just an idea that needs to be extensively tested before I present it as something the world should try. I am humble enough to realize that chameleon breeders have been coming to Madagascar for decades with the exact same purpose as I did and they have observed the exact same things I have. And, so far, there has been no one saying a layer of detritus, or decaying leaves, helps with laying. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try it out. and it doesn’t mean that I won’t discover something no one else has before me. It just means I need to test it out before I broadcast the idea as a conclusion. The only reason I am sharing with you at this point is to bring you along the process of confirmation. And, hopefully, be a good example of how to apply critical thinking and testing to a hypothesis before blasting it all over social media.

Ideas are cheap. Dime a dozen. Buy me a Starbuck’s iced coffee and I’ll give you 15 right then and there. Make it a Venti and I’ll throw in some anecdotal support by some unnamed expert vet and a sworn testimony from my cousin’s hairdresser whose boyfriend had a chameleon experience. On the other hand, hypothesises that have had a basic level of confirmation from testing and only then are presented for other keepers to do further testing are gold for our community advancement. So, I have an idea. I am going to test it with side by side examples and only one variable different and then across different species. I will then try and prove it wrong. If I am unable to prove it wrong I will present it to a small set of community members to have them try it out. And with the results from those other keepers I will feel comfortable presenting it to the entire community and including it as part of the Chameleon Academy body of knowledge. Whew! That is a lot of work! But it sure makes for a higher quality information exchange amongst a social media community that loves to run with any new idea.

Encourage listeners to go to Madagascar

So, now, how about you? I would like to encourage any of you who have had an interest in going to see chameleons in Madagascar to make it happen. I fully understand how intimidating it can be. And if you are in the US you may only have two weeks of vacation to work with and when travel can be two days either way this becomes a major financial and time investment. This may very well be the only time off you are able to take. So it may truly be a once in a lifetime experience for you. And if it is going to be a once in a lifetime experience then go ahead and make it happen. From personal experience I can say the biggest roadblock is knowing where to start. So perhaps I can smooth that part over for you.

Luckily, Madagascar has a well established tourism industry with guides that specialize in chameleons and other wildlife. If you would like to have a recommendation I will put a link to the contact information for my guide Patrick Andriamihaja in the show notes.  Just message him and tell him your story. I listened to Bill’s podcast. I love chameleons. I want to come to Madagascar. What do I need to do to make this happen? The benefit of mentioning that you heard about him via this podcast is that I have already told him about my listeners and that they may have zero idea what to ask so he is ready to help you figure something out from ground zero. You can put together a group of your friends or else see if there is room in a group that is going already. He knows he may be helping you with everything. And, heck if we wanted to put together a Chameleon Academy group for 2024 I would be open for that discussion.

The wonderful thing about Madagascar is that you do not have to worry about the wildlife. There are no venomous snakes besides some rear fanged fellows, and there are no large mammals that could consider you lunch. Crocodiles do exist on the island, but this isn’t a situation where you will accidentally run into them in the Ranomafana rainforest. All this may seem strange to consider, but just listen to the podcast episode I did with Carl Cattau about his exploring Tanzania and having to have armed guards to make sure a leopard didn’t make a meal out of him and you start appreciating the ability to walk aimlessly around at night with your flashlight in the trees looking for chameleons!

So, should you go? Yes! Should you look into it now? That is another yes! Check the show notes for Season 8 Episode 1 on Feb 3, 2023 for links to Patrick who will guide you from knowing nothing to knowing the steps to go forward.

Personal Growth

The theme for this season eight of the Chameleon Academy Podcast is growth. Throughout the season, I am going to be talking about the directions we need to grow as a community and directions you can grow as a keeper if you so desire. There is no requirement that you go beyond the basics of keeping a chameleon healthy and happy. But, if chameleons have fascinated you and you want to explore deeper into the chameleon arts then you are in exactly the right place!

Going to Madagascar was a step in my personal growth. I have relied on other people for my knowledge of the wild conditions. Sure I have seen chameleons in South Africa and Florida, but when I need to go in depth on a subject concerning chameleons in the wild I bring on names like Mark Scherz, Petr Necas, Jan Stipala, Chris Anderson, Euan Edwards, and Carl Cattau. That is quite the list of supporting people, but you can’t be an in-depth expert on everything. It just isn’t realistic! You need wide support if you want to talk on big things. I have a deep specialization in captive husbandry methods and the understanding of them within the community. I know my strengths and I know where I need to strengthen. And this trip was a big step in the direction I need to go. Now, this one trip hardly makes me an expert on chameleon observations in the wild. I still have my consultant team, but this trip does help me better understand their answers to my questions. One step at a time folks. It will not happen over night. We all need to be patient and kind with ourselves.

This was my growth point. This is where I am in my journey. And this year’s theme, appropriately, will be growth – the community’s and the individual’s.

And, so how will the Chameleon Academy offer growth opportunities for you? Great question! Here is what season eight will look like

The Chameleon Academy outreach for 2023 will be a podcast episode every other week and a Chameleon Hour YouTube video every other week. So this will offer both an in-depth audio experience and a fun chameleon variety show. I am having too much fun with both so we will have both this year!

I will have live interactive sessions on both Instagram (on Tuesday evenings 5PM PST on Instagram) and the Chameleons & Coffee show YouTube live every Saturday afternoon at 12 noon PST.

And, of course, various Instagram posts and stories, YouTube videos, and blog posts through the week.

And that is a lot to keep track of! Well, you can review the schedule by signing up for the free Chameleon Academy Newsletter which comes out once a week and discusses what has gone on and what will go on the next week in the Chameleon Academy outreach. You can find the newsletter sign-up link on the home page of

And, finally, if you want to have a more indepth discussion or question answered than the standard social media private message or Instagram story question allows then I invite you to join the chameleon academy Patreon where I take my Patreon’s personal growth in the chameleon arts seriously. Each week we have a discussion topic and more in depth answers to questions than you get elsewhere. Sometimes the discussion topic is the podcast episode a week early and sometimes it is a custom video topic. I like to switch it up for variety. I want to thank all the Patrons that are supporting the Chameleon Academy outreach right now. I appreciate you very much. Most of you joined not to get any special perks, but just to support my public outreach. I can’t tell you what that support gesture means to me. Thank you.

And now, it is time to sign off. My trip to Madagascar has been a very special trip. There are a number of things that are still on my personal growth list that involve Madagascar so chances are good that I will be back one or two more times. But I need to reconnect with my family before starting the second trip plans! I have quite the return trip ahead of me, but that is for the future. Right now I am simply enjoying being here amongst the chameleons and lemurs. I thank you for joining me here and sharing my experience. I look forward to this next year of celebrating the joy of chameleons and pushing our husbandry horizons. Take care and I will see you next time.

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