What Is A Chameleon

When it comes to iconic reptiles, it doesn’t get much more well-known than the chameleon.

Chameleons aren’t too tricky to care for, and their ability to change colors frequently makes them a fun and exciting pet to
own. 

But you may still hold back from buying one of these awesome pets until you exactly what is a chameleon.

In this article, we’ll go over the details of this lizard and how to care for it.

If this isn’t your cup of tea, you may want to check out some of the other best pet lizards.

Description Of The Chameleon

The chameleon (or chameleons as it is also spelled) is a family of lizards with 202 specific species at last count.

The full scientific name of this reptile is Animalia Chordata Reptilia Squamata Iguania Acrodonta Chamaeleonidae.

Though there are over 200 different species, all of these species belong to the chameleon family and form a clade. 

A clade is a closely related family which shares a common ancestor.

This result is very similar traits shown across species.

The species range a wide variety of colors, and most of these chameleons can change colors, which is the iconic trait of chameleons.

Common traits of chameleons include some of the following: 

  • Gripping/grabbing feet (zygodactylous)
  • Quickly extruding tongues
  • Horns on brow and nose
  • Prehensile tails
  • Independently-moving eyes

Chameleons’ main method of movement is climbing for hunting and safety. 

They use their color-changing camouflage as a tool for hunting and hiding.

Chameleons can range in size from .59″ inches to 27″ inches depending on species and health.

The chameleon is a common household pet. 

The pet species tend to range in size from 2″ inches to 21″ inches.

The lifespan of pet chameleons stretches from 3-11 years, depending on the species you have.

The Areas We Cover

Habitat

In this section, we look at the habitat needs of the chameleon, starting with its natural habitat in the wild and moving on to captivity.

Habitat In The Wild

In nature, chameleons are typically found in hot and humid climates in Africa and other areas of the world near there.

But chameleons are found in all of the following places:

  • Sub-saharan Africa
  • Madagascar
  • Northern Africa
  • Southern Europe
  • Middle East
  • Southern India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Islands in the West Indian Ocean
  • Hawaii
  • California
  • Florida

Almost all species of chameleons are arboreal. 

This means they spend all of their time climbing and living in trees and off the ground.

Even the rare chameleon not found up in a tree will be in the brush over the ground most of the time.

Sadly, many wild species of chameleons are facing extinction due to the destruction of their natural habitats. 

These lizards can’t relocate themselves and are entirely dependent on their forest environments.

Enclosure Size And Material

As with all pets, you want an enclosure which closely follows what the chameleon enjoys in the wild. 

This will help them live a long and healthy life.

With this in mind, chameleon tanks need to be taller than they are wide.

The typical size for the veiled chameleon (one of the most common species) is 2′ feet long, 2′ feet wide, and 3′ feet tall. 

Four feet tall for the tank would be better.

Smaller species may get away with less, and larger species may need more. 

To find more, you’ll have to do more reading on the species you want, but this will give you a good place to start.

As with many lizards, it isn’t recommended to keep more than one chameleon in one enclosure. 

They tend to fight over food and space aggressively.

Glass, plastic, and screen tanks are common materials for tanks. 

Any option works well, though glass provides the best visibility.

On the other hand, the right all-glass enclosure is hard to find, and the trapped air may create upper respiratory problems.

You may wish to get a tank with a screen side on one side. 

This increased airflow from the tank is good for the pet.

But this will make the tank harder to keep up to the correct warmth.

Make sure your tank also has a secure lid. 

Chameleons don’t always actively try to escape like some other pets, but they are amazing climbers with their gripping feet and prehensile tails.

If they ever get out, you will have a difficult time finding them. 

So a good top is key.  

Temperature

Again, the specific temperature for chameleons will depend on the exact species, but since the veiled chameleon is the most common pet species, we’ll look at this one.

The hot and humid nature of the reptile’s natural habitat means it needs a hot tank.

You’re looking for two min temperatures in the tank.

The first is for the basking spot. 

This should be kept between 85° – 95° degrees Fahrenheit (29° – 35° C).

A basking spot is achieved with a heat lamp placed 6″ – 7″ inches away from the intended spot. 

Make sure there is a horizontal perch in place beneath this spot for the chameleon to rest on.

The other temperature is the overall ambient temperature of the enclosure. 

This should be between 72° – 80° degrees Fahrenheit (22° – 27° C).

Common options for reaching this overall temperature include the following: 

  • Heat lamps
  • Heat rocks
  • Heat tape
  • Ceramic heaters
  • Heating pads

This is used in conjunction with the basking lamp spot. In some cases, the light from the basking spot will also be enough to heat the overall tank as well.

Chameleons are like other reptiles and have developed instincts for regulating their body temperatures, so don’t worry if the tank is on the high end of these numbers.

The chameleons will seek out water, shade, and use other body tricks to cool themselves down.

We suggest using at least two thermometers in the tank. 

One should be placed on or in the basking spot, and the other should be in the middle of the tank.

You could also consider using an infrared thermometer, which can tell the temperature of a specific spot. 

With this, checking a variety of spots in the tank is possible.

At night, the temperature can drop quite a ways before it becomes a problem. 

This drop in temperature is a good thing and helps them regulate their day-night cycle.

Watch out for the temperature if it begins to dip below the 50° degrees Fahrenheit (10° C) mark. 

If it does, you may want to use a heater on low at night as long as it doesn’t emit any light.

Lighting

As the Equator or near-the-Equator based reptile, the chameleon is used to a lot of sunlight. 

This resulted in an evolutionary dependency on UVB radiation for a healthy life.

One of the main elements they gain from the sun is Vitamin D. 

Vitamin D is essential in the body’s processing of essential minerals from food.

This is especially evident with calcium. 

Without vitamin D, little or no calcium is absorbed from food.

Without calcium, the boy becomes malnourished, and bones become more brittle.

All this is to say; your tank also needs to provide enough UVB light for the chameleon to absorb plenty of vitamins.

A UVB specific light can help with the heating factor, but it’s most important job is to provide 12 hours of UVB light per day to the reptile.

Most owners either use a UVB light to light their overall tank, or they use a specific one in addition to the heat lamp at the basking spot. 

It’s important to provide a nighttime environment, as well. 

The drop in light helps them keep a consistent cycle, which is also key to a healthy life.

If you do need to heat the tank somewhat at night, make sure the heater doesn’t give off any light, or it may throw off your pet. 

Humidity

The humidity of chameleon tanks aren’t as big of a deal as lighting and temperature, but you do want to keep the relative humidity as close to 50% as possible.

For most situations, lightly spraying down the plants in the tank twice per day will do this easily.

Keep a hygrometer in the tank to check the humidity and consider a humidifier or dehumidifier as needed. 

Furniture

For chameleons, the vines and plants to climb on is a must. 

As arboreal creatures, they won’t be able to live as their instincts tell them without something to climb on.

The furniture should be a good mix of fake plants, wood, and vines with the real kind. 

Real plants should be non-toxic such as: 

  • Ficus
  • Schefflera
  • Hibiscus
  • Pothos

The plants serve many purposes.

They provide cover for a feeling of safety when the reptile wants to hide. 

They also provide shade when your pet needs to cool itself off.

The live plants will also help keep the relative humidity up to 50%; it needs to be to avoid sin and respiratory problems.

Note: When you arrange the plants, make sure there are plenty of horizontal places for the reptile to rest on. 

While they’re excellent climbers, they need these spots to relax their feet and tails. 

Behavior

Chameleons are interesting creatures, and a big part of this is their behavior patterns. 

In this section, we’ll look at some of the common behaviors you may see from the chameleon. 

Solitary Nature

Most chameleon species are solitary. 

When encountering their species, they show no interest, and, in most cases, will attack them to defend their food and right to privacy.

One of the rare times you’ll see chameleons interacting is during the mating process. 

Shy Behaviors

As you may expect from an animal famous for its hiding ability, the chameleon is shy.

As an owner, this means you need to leave it be for the most part. 

Over-handling stresses the creature out and could cause serious problems with their health over time.

If you’re looking for a lizard pet to handle and do things with, the chameleon may not be for you. 

A bearded dragon may end up being the better fit for you.

As another aspect of this shy nature, chameleons don’t like active environments around them. 

A lot of noise and motion will make them fear for their lives.

In the wild, they escape much of the natural chaos of the forest floors. 

By changing their color, they find a place to be without any attention paid to them. 

Communication Behaviors

Chameleons aren’t commonly known to communicate through sounds but through color. 

Their colors do change as a protective camouflage process, but when things are calm, they use their colors to tell others what’s going on with their bodies.

As an owner, you need to pay attention to their normal coloration. 

When they are stressed, the colors will end up staying dark most of the time.

When you see this, it may be time to evaluate the tank for problems or take the pet to the vet. 

The temperature may also be too low.

If the coloration seems too light when compared to normal, this is sometimes a sign of too high of a temperature, stress, or other illness.

In some cases, when the colors become more vivid or clear, the chameleon is defending its territory or getting ready to mate. 

Health

Like all creatures, chameleons have health concerns you need to be aware of if you’re thinking about adopting one of these adorable guys.

This section goes over their health basics, including lifespan, size, and common health concerns.

Lifespan

The lifespan of the chameleon depends on species and general health, and in the wild, you may expect a shorter lifespan.

This is due to the presence of predators, availability of food, the passage of illness, and volatile environmental concerns.

However, captive chameleons are expected to live longer as long as they’re well cared for.

Going over all 202 species and their lifespans would take a long time, but these are the common pet species and their life expectancy in captivity. 

Species & Average Lifespan

  • Veiled Chameleon (5 Years)
  • Jackson's Chameleon (5-10 Years)
  • Panther Chameleon (5 Years)
  • Bearded Pygmy Chameleon (3-5 Years)
  • Spectral Pygmy Chameleon (3-5 Years)
  • Usambara Pitted Pygmy Chameleon (5-11 Years)

Size

As with the life span, the size of the chameleon depends on the species. 

But with size, gender is also a factor.

Typically, male chameleons are larger than female chameleons.

The first few months of their lives show explosive growth. 

They’ll reach their full size by 12 months old.

However, as with many reptiles, chameleons will experience a smaller but consistent growth over the rest of their life.

This is the reason for the wide range in size reached.

Check out this handy chart for the average size of each common chameleon pet species by gender.

Note: This is when the reptile is fully grown. 

Species

  • Veiled Chameleon
  • Jackson's Chameleon
  • Panther Chameleon
  • Bearded Pygmy Chameleon
  • Spectral Pygmy Chameleon
  • Usambara Pitted Pygmy Chameleon

Average Male Size In Inches (centimeters)

  • 13.7" - 23.6" in (35-60 cm)
  • 9.1" - 13" in (23-33 cm)
  • 15" - 20.9" in (38-53 cm)
  • 2" - 3.1" in (5-8 cm)
  • 3.1" - 3.9" in (8-10 cm)
  • 2.3" - 9" in (6-10 cm)

Average Female Size In Inches (centimeters)

  • 9.8" - 13" in (25-33 cm)
  • 9.8" - 13" in (25-33 cm)
  • 9.8" - 13" in (25-33 cm)
  • 2" - 3.1" in (5-8 cm)
  • 2" - 3.9" in (5-10 cm)
  • 2" - 3.5" in (5-9 cm)

Common Illnesses

Chameleons, for all their calm nature and cool looks, are sometimes considered somewhat difficult to care for.

This is in large part due to their sensitivity to stress and their common illnesses.

However, with captive chameleons, many of these issues are preventable or easily curable if treated early.

This is why we recommend twice per year checkups for chameleons with a qualified vet.

So, with this in mind, here are some common illnesses for chameleons.

Excessive Stress – This isn’t an illness but an overall problem. 

Any number of things can cause this, but usually, the culprit is a habitat issue.

To fix this, go over the habitat setup information above and in dedicated articles.

Upper Respiratory Infections – This is the most common sickness with these reptiles, and they tend to get them a few times in their lives.

The main cause of this is bacteria in the air caused by stale air or poor air quality. 

It is prevented by keeping the humidity around 50%, removing dirty litter from the bottom of the tank, and encouraging airflow to the tank.

Look for these signs of getting your chameleon into the vet for early treatments:

  • Gaped mouth
  • Excessive mucus
  • Wheezing sounds
  • Inflammation
  • Frothing around the mouth and nose

Parasites – Caught from food, parasites make the animal lose weight and appetite. 

Testing droppings and twice-yearly checks will catch this and fix it quickly.

Kidney problems – Kidney problems may cause gout and ultimately result in the death of your pet. 

The main cause of this is dehydration.

Keep the humidity around 50% and offer a water drip for drinking at all times to prevent this.

Metabolic Bone Disease – This is common with all reptiles. 

This disease is caused by a lack of calcium in the chameleon’s system.

This is caused by a poor diet or a lack of UVB. 

It’s possible to be a combination of the two.

Check the diet and tank lighting and add supplements to their food to fix this problem.

Diet

Chameleons are almost exclusively insectivores. 

This means they eat insects as their main source of food.

Some chameleons will also eat some plant life, but this isn’t common and isn’t needed.

Crickets are the common staple of the chameleon diet. 

The size of cricket should be limited to as big as the chameleon’s head is wide.

Crickets larger than this may end up choking the pet or impacting in their system.

Feed as many crickets to the chameleon as they’ll eat in 10 minutes.

Baby and juvenile chameleons are fed once or twice per day. 

Adult chameleons are fed every other day.

We recommend you add supplements to the crickets either by dusting them with a vitamin and mineral mix or by gut-loading them the day before.

Gut-loading means the crickets are fed high-nutrient foods the day before they’re fed to the chameleon.

Now, the crickets are packed with extra vitamins for the reptile to absorb. 

Care

Here are a few things you need to do as an owner to care for your pet. 

Handling

Chameleons shouldn’t be handled often, but there are times you’ll need to move it from one place to another.

In these times, you should know how to handle your pet safely.

Here are the steps in short: 

  • Make the chameleon aware of you by talking to it.
  • Lay your hand flat beneath the chameleon where it can see your hand.
  • Move your hand underneath its body slowly.
  • Support the chameleon fully.
  • Move it where it needs to go.
  • Gently lower it to the ground.
  • Wash your hands.

Reproduction

Chameleons can reproduce beginning at 9-12 months of age.

To breed the reptiles, place the male in the female’s tank. 

Watch how they interact with each other.

The male may begin to move towards the female. 

If the female responds, they may begin to mate.

They may mate several times before the female darkens her colors to show she is resistant to mating. 

The male should be removed.

Warning! Sometimes the male will show aggressive behavior towards the female. 

If he starts to attack, he isn’t ready to mate and wants to take over the area.

After a month, the female with being pacing around her tank. 

Now it’s time to move her to a place with moist sand/dirt for her to bury and lay the eggs.

Eggs take 5-10 months before they hatch. 

Supplies Needed

Here are the common supplies needed to care for a chameleon.

Tank/Enclosure – 2′ feet long, 2′ feet wide, and 4′ feet tall made of glass or screen sides. 

Screen Cover – A screen cover provides air circulation and keeps the pet from accidentally escaping.

UVA/UVB Light – This light gives UVA and UVB rays to simulate sunshine.

Heating Lamp – This warms up the tank and gives extra heat at the basking spot.

Flooring – A material to help make cleaning up droppings easier. 

Should be chemical-free and not able to be accidentally swallowed. 

Thermometer/Hygrometer – Check the status of the tank’s temp and humidity.

Water drip – For drinking. Don’t use a water dish; a drip will simulate the falling rain.

Plants/Vines – For climbing and resting on. 

Species

There are 202 species of chameleons (although some are endangered, so the number may change).

The six main pet species include the following:

  • Chamaeleo calyptratus (Veiled chameleon)
  • Trioceros jacksonii (Jackson's chameleon)
  • Furcifer pardalis (Panther chameleon)
  • Rieppeleon brevicaudatus (Bearded pygmy chameleon)
  • Rhampholeon spectrum (Spectral pygmy chameleon)
  • Rhampholeon temporalis (Usambara pitted pygmy chameleon)