Chameleons are fascinating creatures. Even those people who do not care for reptiles are often absorbed by the site of one of these lizards, with its independently-orientated eyes and shooting tongue that is longer than the animal itself. Chameleons appear in cartoons, their colour-changing ability greatly exaggerated so that people get the impression that they can change colour at will to camouflage themselves against their background. In contrast with most lizards, which either skitter at speed or stride majestically across the terrain, chameleons cling to branches in a half-frozen, half-creeping posture, swaying slightly like a leaf. In some species the huge casques or horns on the head add to the overall bizarreness, as does the tail which when not used as an anchor is coiled up like some gigantic watchspring.
If urban legends are rife about the chameleons in the West, in Africa the case is surprisingly even more so. Many Africans have a superstitious dread of chameleons, holding them a breed apart from other lizards.
The realities about these unusual lizards are in fact more mundane but no less interesting. Chameleons by and large do not change colour to cryptically camouflage themselves: instead their moods alter their appearance, whether being receptive to mating, angry, sick or dead. They are also completely harmless to humans: the vast majority prey almost exclusively on a wide variety of insects.
To the disappointment of many, chameleons by and large do not make good reptile captives, even for those experienced with reptiles. This is for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they are completely unsociable animals, perhaps the most so of nearly all the Class Reptilia. Even one male and one female may not tolerate each other, while the company of other animals and people may also be stressful to them. Secondly, they need a diet made up of as many different insect types as possible. Unlike most lizards, which will happily consume crickets and the odd waxworm or piece of fruit until the cows come home, chameleons seem to rebel against the same item day in, day out. Thirdly, qualities such as ventilation and humidity are very important to most species, necessitating wire mesh cages equipped with, say, a drip system. Fourthly, living plants seem to be preferable to artificial ones: certainly leafy cover seems to be a prerequisite to prevent dangerous stress. Finally, it seems that chameleons may be naturally short-lived creatures in contrast to many other lizards.
Having said all this to warn off the casual or unwary, I should add that chameleon husbandry has come a long way in the past decade, and some are now regularly kept and bred in captivity. However, in reality the choice comes down to a handful of the hardier species such as the Jackson's or Parsons Chameleon if you are starting out keeping chameleons. It is also the case that even suitable species are probably more demanding in terms of time and attention than many other lizards, including Green Iguanas.
The chameleons form two subfamilies, one of two and one of four genera, as follows:
|Subfamily Brookesiinae||dwarf chameleons|
|Subfamily Chamaeloninae||"normal" chameleons|
|Bradypodion||found in south and east Africa|
|Calumma||found only in Madagascar|
|Chamaeleo||mainly East African|
|Furcifer||found only in Madagascar|
There seems to be some dispute over whether Trioceros is a subgenus or a full genus. We have treated it here as a subgenus of Chamaeleo.
I have never attempted to keep chameleons myself, firstly because they are not my main line of interest and secondly because I consider I do not have the time or resources to devote to such interesting but demanding animals. Therefore I cannot offer any first-hand advice on care, maintenance or breeding. I can however point the reader to the books in the Bibliography and also to some of the Internet sites, E-zines and mailing lists. There are many dedicated chameleon keepers out in the community who share information and experiences with one another in a pioneering and unselfish spirit.
Chameleons: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual, R D and Patricia Bartlett, Barron's, 1995. A very useful introduction to many species of chameleon, including the best and most popular candidates for captivity (not necessarily the same thing!).
Care and Breeding of Chameleons, edited by Philippe deVosjoli and Gary Ferguson, Advanced Vivarium Systems 1995, California. Covers the care and breeding of Panther, Jackson's, Veiled and Parson's Chameleons, with contributions from Sean McKeown, Kenneth Kalisch and Ron Tremper. I believe an updated version of this book has recently appeared.
The New Chameleon Handbook, Francois LeBerre, Barron's, 1995. I have not read this book, but LeBerre is a recognised authority in the herpetological community with chameleons.
Chameleons: Nature's Hidden Jewels, Petr Necas, Krieger 1999 (based on an original German-language work). This is another one which I have not read but which has been recommended by others.
Lizard Care from A to Z, R D and Patricia Bartlett, Barron's, New York 1997. A good overall book with about 6-7 pages dedicated to chameleons, first of all warning beginners not to attempt keeping them! This is an excellent book, but for specific chameleon care the reader should look at one of the titles above.
"Ardi Arbate: Chameleon Advocate", Tom Mazorlig, Reptile & Amphibian Hobbyist, 6:8. A very informative interview with Ms Ardi Arbate, who at the time was editor of Chameleon Information Network. She shares her thoughts on the future on the chameleon hobby and on chameleon conservation in the wild. Since then unfortunately Ardi has left the network, her views having shifted somewhat. Nevertheless the article remains a source of valid information.
Index of herpetological magazine articles on chameleons and individual species
The Chameleon Journals - very professional site administered by Kathy Kaiwi.
Chameleon Information Network - another longstanding source of chameleon information.
Chameleons Online E-Zine, edited I believe by Francois LeBerre who is something of an authority with these lizards.
The African Herpetology Website has several forums, including two dedicated to chameleons.
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