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The Veiled Chameleon
by Petra Lowe
Originally Published in three installments in the Cold Blooded News, Vol.23, No’s.6-8, June – August 1996.
Part I – Purchasing a Veiled Chameleon
from a Pet Store
from a Reptile Show
by Mail Order
Part II – Captive Care
Heating and Lighting
Part III – Breeding
Checking Gender & Sexual Readiness
The veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) is the most commonly bred and available species of its genus in herpetoculture. The popularity of the veiled chameleon is due to a number of factors: veiled chameleons are relatively hardy, large, beautiful, and prolific. It is not uncommon to encounter this species in pet shops, even pet shops that do not specialize in reptiles. Unfortunately, veiled chameleons are all too often purchased from reptile shows or pet shops without the correct information on their proper care and management in captivity. As a result, many newly purchased veiled chameleons do not live over one year of age.
It is the responsibility of the seller to provide information on captive care, as it is also the responsibility of the purchaser to seek it before the animal is brought home. The captive care of veiled chameleons is somewhat involved (what reptile care isn’t?), but well worth the effort. This article is intended as a guide to purchasing, caring for, and breeding veiled chameleons, but is by no means intended to be the only source of information required on this subject.
Part I – Purchase
Purchasing a Veiled Chameleon:
What to Look for and What to Avoid.
First and foremost, purchase only captive born veiled chameleons. Although large numbers of captive born veiled chameleons are produced annually in the United States, veiled chameleons are still imported for the pet trade. Imported chameleons should be avoided at all costs. Imports usually carry a large parasite load, and are dehydrated and stressed from the importation process. The only time imported chameleons should be purchased is to augment and improve the genetic diversity of a large scale breeding program.
Veiled chameleons are common in the pet trade, so how does one choose a healthy chameleon? Healthy chameleons have straight limbs. If you see a chameleon for sale that looks “bowlegged”, has difficulty grasping onto branches or walking, or has a crooked back or jaw, do not purchase it. These symptoms often indicate an animal that has developed metabolic bone disease, a preventable calcium deficiency. Check the eyes closely. Healthy chameleons have their eyes open during the daytime and look around their environment constantly. Chameleons that have their eyes closed for long periods of time during the day are usually sick. Also avoid chameleons with sunken eyes; these animals are generally dehydrated and stressed. The color of a chameleon is generally a good indicator of its overall condition. A chameleon that is very dark and drab is generally stressed by something in its environment, sick, or too cold.
Make sure to check inside the animal’s mouth for signs of mouth rot. This is rather easily accomplished with veiled chameleons because of their propensity for gaping and hissing when approached or held. To check inside the mouth, let the animal walk onto your hand, and then gently wrap your free hand over the top to the animal and restrain it lightly. The animal should gape and hiss, if it does not, and lies placidly in your hand with it’s eyes closed, it is most likely sick. Once the mouth is open, check for any cheesy looking matter or green color, the presence of either of these two signs indicates an infection. The only animals one should consider for purchase should have straight limbs, a strong grip and gait, alert and open eyes, good color, and a healthy looking mouth. There are three common sources for captive born veiled chameleons: pet stores, reptile shows, and mail-order.
Purchasing from a Pet Store:
The following list contains factors one should consider if purchasing a veiled chameleon from a pet store:
Is the animal housed appropriately in the store?
One should check that the animal is being maintained in an appropriate enclosure with proper lighting, heating, and ventilation. If the store does not house their reptiles in the correct environment, turn around and leave. Pet stores that do not house reptiles appropriately often have stressed or sick animals and will not be able to help with any practical advice on captive care.
Is the animal being fed the proper diet?
Ask the employees what the animal is eating. Also ask the employees if the feeder insects are being gut loaded (gut loading is the fortification of insects before they are fed to the animal) and dusted with calcium supplement. (For further discussion of the importance of calcium supplementation, refer to Part II – Captive Care.) If the animals is not being fed a proper diet, this can also indicate the existence or development of stress and numerous dietary diseases.
Are the employees knowledgeable about the captive care of veiled chameleons?
Learn some important facets of veiled chameleon captive care and ask pet store employees some pointed questions. It is very easy this way to determine whether or not the store’s employees are knowledgeable. Knowledgeable pet store employees can be a great help and source of information should there be problems with your purchase. Pet stores that sell reptiles without knowledgeable employees on staff do not deserve your business.
Purchasing from a Reptile Show:
There are many other sources for captive bred veiled chameleons. One of the most common sources is reptile shows. Even small reptile shows generally have someone selling captive born veiled chameleons. There are several advantages and disadvantages of purchasing veiled chameleons at reptile shows. The advantages include much lower pricing: veiled chameleons wholesale at reptile shows for anywhere from $30 to $100, depending on the age of the animal. The prices are variable, but there will almost always be a better deal at a reptile show than in a pet store. Reptile shows present an opportunity to talk directly with the breeder about captive care. Although most breeders are very busy at shows, they should take a least a few minutes to discuss any questions you have on care, provide literature on captive care (or tell you where you can get some), and/or provide their phone number or address should you have any more questions. Even if you are very knowledgeable about veiled chameleon captive care and breeding requirements before a purchase, it still pays to purchase animals from a helpful breeder who can provide advice and encouragement.
The only real disadvantage to purchasing a veiled chameleon at a reptile show is the fact that some breeders may be less than willing to provide information on captive care, and once the animal is sold, they disappear. If there are problems at a later date with the chameleon, these breeders may be very difficult to contact. This is the one advantage a pet store with knowledgeable employees has over a reptile show; if there is a problem with a pet store purchase, the employees can be easily contacted for help or advice. If there are no good reptile stores or local reptile shows available, captive born veiled chameleons may be mail-ordered.
Purchasing by Mail Order:
Mail-ordering veiled chameleons has some distinct disadvantages. Mail-ordering entails a purchase without inspection of the animal first, and is a transaction which relies heavily on trust. Many companies and individual breeders who mail-order veiled chameleons advertise in the classified section of herpetological magazines and journals. Also, if one has access to the Internet, there are many breeders and companies that maintain web pages with price lists. It is best to do business with an established and reputable company or individual. Ask other herpers or knowledgeable pet store employees for some references.
It is definitly possible to obtain quality, captive born veiled chameleons through mail-order, but one should follow several steps to ensure the quality of the animal before the order is made. Contact the potential source before the order and ask some questions about captive care. This is a good way to determine how conscientious the breeder or company is in business dealings. Mail-order also has the disadvantageous necessity of shipping, which can be stressful on the animal. Veiled chameleons are very hardy however, and if packaged properly, will ship with no problems.
Veiled chameleons are popular and deservedly so; they are large, colorful, hardy, and interesting to watch. Although the first section of this article focuses on obtaining a veiled chameleon, the animal should NOT be purchased without reading about and setting up the proper environment first. Purchasing a veiled chameleon, or any animal for that matter, on impulse and without the proper set-up will stress both the keeper and the kept. The next section of this article will focus on captive care requirements of the veiled chameleon.
Part II – Captive Care
The Proper Pre-Purchase Consideration:
There are several factors of veiled chameleon care that need to be carefully considered before the animal is purchased or brought home. First, is a good amount of time available to devote to the proper care of the animal? This may sound like an obvious question, but veiled chameleons do require quite a bit of time to care for properly. Granted, veiled chameleons neither enjoy nor require human contact, but their environmental needs do require forethought and daily maintenance.
Second, is the home the animal coming into have the room for a good size enclosure? Veiled chameleons are one of the larger commonly kept chameleon species and require a rather large enclosure in order to fare well in captivity. Third, what are the reasons for wanting a veiled chameleon? Veiled chameleons are not “pets” in the traditional sense. They do not like being handled or played with, and in fact these activities, if taken to extremes, can stress the animal severely. If however, you do desire an animal that is beautiful, interesting, and a challenge to care for, a veiled chameleon is a good choice. The captive care of veiled chameleons includes several different facets such as, housing, heating and lighting, and diet.
The only difference between housing an adult veiled chameleon and a baby veiled chameleon is the size of the enclosure. Newly hatched veiled chameleon are small, and should be kept in enclosures small enough for the owner to keep a close watch on the health and activity of the animal. A one to three month old veiled chameleon can be housed in an enclosure the size of a standard 10 gallon aquarium. There is anecdotal evidence to support the idea that veiled chameleons benefit from cross-ventilation in their enclosures. To accomplish this, at least two sides of the enclosure should be made of mesh, or at the very least, have a screen top.
Young veiled chameleons can be housed in a 10 gallon aquarium with a screen top, but there are other commercially available choices for veiled chameleon housing that may be better. There are some new commercially manufactured enclosures on the market that have two, three, or all sides made of screen. These enclosures are made specifically with chameleons in mind, and many models feature a vertical format. Veiled chameleons are an arboreal species, and as such, they prefer vertical space to horizontal space. These enclosures can be found in reptile specialty stores, or mail-ordered through companies that advertise in herpetological journals and magazines.
Veiled chameleons grow at an astounding rate; a hatchling can be close to adult size in six to eight months. Adult veiled chameleons should be housed in enclosures with minimum dimensions of 3′ L x 2′ W x 3′ H [66 x 44 x 66 cm]. A larger enclosure is always preferable. Once a suitable enclosure is acquired, it is important to furnish it properly. Veiled chameleons are highly adapted to their arboreal lifestyle, and require climbing and basking branches. The branches should be slightly larger in diameter than the chameleon’s grip, so the animal can walk and perch comfortably. For baby chameleons, it is sometimes difficult to find small enough branches, but a trip to a local craft store can solve this problem quickly. Craft stores often sell grapevine wreaths, which can be torn apart to furnish small, bendable twigs. Place the branches or twigs inside the enclosure criss-crossing each other to form little “chameleon highways”. Do not crowd the cage, but make sure the animal has enough branches for sleeping spots, basking spots, and eating perches.
As the chameleon matures, gradually increase the diameter of the branches until the animal has reached its adult size. Branches large enough for adult chameleons can be purchased or collected, but if they are collected, they must be sterilized. To sterilize branches, scrub them with a dilute bleach solution, 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Wash the branches off completely with clean water and leave them in direct sunlight to dry. Lashing large branches together can be a chore, but there is a two dollar item that can relieve this problem. Cable ties can be used to lash large branches together in a sturdy climbing structure, but make sure to cut off the excess ribbon far enough so that the chameleon cannot scratch itself on the sharp edge. Hardware stores carry cable ties in many different colors and sizes. On the bottom of the cage, use butcher paper or newspaper cut to size. Do not use sand or other loose substrates because chameleons can ingest some should they attempt to consume a stray insect from the floor of the cage. Another important aspect of veiled chameleon housing is plant life.
Unlike many other chameleons, veileds will consume an appreciable amount of vegetable matter in their diet. Adult veiled chameleons consume more vegetable matter that babies or juveniles (Bertoni, 1994), but veileds of all ages should have access to vegetation at all times. One of the best, and most visibly appealing ways to provide for this need is to have a live plant in the enclosure. There is some debate about the suitability of ficus plants in veiled chameleon enclosures, because the plants have a milky, irritating sap that may cause eye infections. Many people have used ficus plants in veiled chameleon enclosures with no ill effects, but it may be best to err on the side of caution here.
By far the best plant I have found for veiled chameleon enclosures is pothos. Pothos plants are attractive, hard to kill, non-toxic, and tasty to veiled chameleons. Some veiled chameleon enthusiasts have voiced concern over the rather high oxalate content of pothos because this can cause problems with calcium absorption. To deal with this possible problem, also offer the veiled chameleon some fresh collard or mustard greens, which have a high calcium content. I use “veggie-clips”, which are intended for use in aquariums, to clip a section of collard leaf to the side of the cage. I have found that my veiled will eat sections of this leaf rather than the pothos. I have not seen any problems with my animal consuming small amounts of pothos, so including the plant in the enclosure to provide cover is still a good idea.
Be careful where the pothos is purchased however, because many nurseries spray their plants with pesticides, which can be harmful to the animal if consumed. Ask the employees about their pesticide use, and obtain a pesticide free plant if possible. Do not include toxic plants in veiled chameleon enclosures, the animal will try to eat them. If the toxicity of a plant is not known, contact someone at a herpetological society for advice. In any event, make sure to wash the leaves off with clean water before putting it in the enclosure. Make sure to also put some branches under the leaves of the plant; this provides hiding areas for the animals, and they will often choose to sleep in these areas.
Do not house more than one veiled chameleon per enclosure. When veiled chameleons are very young (under 3 months), it is possible to house some together without too much undue stress, but attempt to house them separately if possible. Veiled chameleons are extremely asocial creatures and do not tolerate the presence of other species very well. Male veileds are extremely combative and will fight if placed together. Housing a male and a female together can be done if the enclosure is very large, say the size of a greenhouse. If the enclosure is small, do not attempt to house even a male and female together. The constant presence of the male will stress the female severely. The only time veiled chameleons should be put together is during the brief time required for copulation. Otherwise, keep them separate. The next important factor in veiled chameleon care is heating and lighting.
Heating and Lighting:
Essentials in Captive Management:
Veiled chameleons like hot basking spots. It is not uncommon to see veileds basking even when the ambient temperature is 80° to 90°F [27° to 32°C] (Annis, 1995). It is critically important that the owner provide a heating lamp to create a basking spot of 90° to 100°F [32° to 38°C] at one end of the enclosure. The ambient air temperature in the rest of the cage should be in the 70’s at nighttime, with a preferred rise to the 80’s over the course of the day. Veiled chameleons who are not provided with appropriate basking spots will develop respiratory and/or digestion problems over time.
By far the best way to provide the appropriate heating it to use a reflector lamp (also known as clamp or shop lights) and a heat bulb. Reflector lamps can be inexpensively purchased at hardware stores. The wattage of the heat bulb required to create a basking spot of 90° to 100°F varies with the ambient temperature, but do not “guess” the temperature inside the enclosure. Purchase a good quality reptile thermometer and use it to determine the wattage needed. If, for example, you purchase a 75 watt bulb, and it only raises the temperature under the basking spot to 85°F, move up to a 100 watt bulb, which should raise the temperature to 90° or 95°F. Different types of bulbs produce different results. The best bulb for creating a really warm basking area is a spot bulb. Spot bulbs have a narrowly focused beam that raises the temperature higher than a different bulb of the same wattage. I personally prefer the spot bulbs that are manufactured by ZooMed specifically for use with reptiles, but they are a little pricey in retail pet shops. Any bulb that raises the basking spot temperature to the appropriate level is safe to use.
The placement of the basking spot within the cage is rather important. Reptiles, being ectothermic, do not manufacture their own body heat. In order to raise or lower their body temperature, reptiles rely on behavioral mechanisms. This is to say that when a reptile is too cold, it moves to a warmer area, such as a basking branch in the sun, and when the animal is too hot, it moves to a cooler area, such as a shaded branch. This behavioral mechanism is called thermoregulation. In captivity, we need to provide reptiles with a range of temperatures so that the animals may thermoregulate as they would in the wild. For veiled chameleons, that means one end of the cage should be the preferred ambient temperature, and one end should be at the basking temperature. If the enclosure is large enough, there may also be temperature differences at different heights. If you keep your veiled in a large enclosure, it is best to put the basking site at the highest point of the cage, so that the vertical temperature change mimics what occurs in nature. Once the heating requirements are met, it is time to provide for the lighting requirements. Appropriate lighting for veiled chameleons is a whole other ball of waxworms.
There is, as always, quite a controversy regarding correct lighting and chameleons. The current trend is to provide chameleons with full-spectrum fluorescent lighting that emits energy in the UVB wavelengths (290-315 nm). It is thought that when chameleons are irradiated with UVB, they create vitamin D3 under their skin from its precursor 7-dehydrocholesterol (Annis, 1995). Vitamin D3 is important for calcium absorption, and without appropriate amounts of vitamin D3, there is evidence to support the idea that chameleons will suffer from a calcium deficiency. However (this is where it gets more confusing!), there is a recent study that suggests that chameleons do not manufacture vitamin D3 by the photochemical process described above (Henkel and Heinecke, 1994). However, I have seen veiled chameleons kept under only plant grow lights develop symptoms of metabolic bone disease within a month. Whether what I saw was due to incorrect lighting, or incorrect dietary supplementation is difficult to say, as the person who had these sad chameleons had provided neither full-spectrum lighting nor calcium or vitamin D3 supplementation.
What I can say unequivocally, is that the veiled chameleons I have raised under full-spectrum lighting with UVB, proper supplementation, and proper diet, have never developed symptoms of metabolic bone disease. Although the results of the Henkel and Heninecke study are interesting, one study does not a truth make, and as a result, I would still recommend using full-spectrum lighting with UVB in veiled chameleon enclosures as a precautionary measure.
The best way to provide full-spectrum lighting with UVB in a captive situation is to have two fluorescent fixtures running the length of the enclosure. In one fixture, use a bulb that emits UVB, such as the ZooMed UVB 310 bulb. This particular bulb can cost a small herper fortune in a retail pet shop; the average retail price for this bulb is $40.00 each! However, there are ways around this. There is a magazine written for marine and freshwater fish enthusiasts called Freshwater and Marine Aquarium (FAMA for short) that has tons of mail-order pet suppliers in the back of the magazine. There are a few advertisers listed in the back of FAMA that sell the ZooMed UVB 310 bulb for under $25.00 (not including shipping). In the second fixture, use a full-spectrum fluorescent bulb such as a Vita-lite (which can also be found cheaper through mail-order). Both of these bulbs must be replaced after 6 months, as their ability to emit true full-spectrum light diminishes over time.
Although there may be full-spectrum light in the enclosure, it is still a very good idea to allow veiled chameleons access to unfiltered, natural sunlight as often as possible. Before taking a veiled chameleon outside, the ambient air temperature must be over 60°F [16°C]. Do not take a chameleon outside in a glass aquarium, as these heat up very quickly, even in cold weather, and can overheat the animal. Also be sure to provide a shaded area where the chameleon can cool off to avoid overheating. One of the best ways to provide access to natural, unfiltered sunlight is to construct or purchase a simple outdoor enclosure that can be used during the warm summer months. The outdoor enclosure can be identical to the indoor enclosure if they are both constructed out of screen, with the exception of the added shade areas. The next important aspect of veiled chameleon captive care is proper diet.
Veiled Chameleon Captive Diet:
Variety is the Key.
Veiled chameleons, as mentioned before, are primarily insectivorous but will take some plant matter in their diet. Providing feeder insects with the correct balance of calcium to phosphorus is of critical importance in the veiled chameleon captive diet. If reptiles are not provided with a balanced diet, they will develop a dietary deficiencies such as a condition called metabolic bone disease. Metabolic bone disease is a calcium deficiency that results from an improper diet, and may also be caused by the lack of vitamin D3. Veiled chameleons require a diet that has a 2:1 calcium to phosphorous ratio. To provide this, it is necessary to fortify the insects before they are fed to the animal. Domestic crickets are the staple of the veiled chameleon captive diet; however, crickets only have a 1:1 calcium to phosphorous ratio. There are several ways to improve the calcium content of crickets and other prey items. The first is a procedure called “gut-loading”.
Gut-loading involves feeding the feeder insects a good, high calcium diet before they are fed to the chameleon. The reasoning behind this considers that predators not only consume the prey item, but they consume the intestinal contents of the prey as well. The intestinal contents of prey items plays an important role in providing a well balanced diet. Variety is extremely important in captive reptile diets, and as such, it is important to vary the gut-loading material fed to feeder insects as well. Here is a gut-loading regime that I recommend:
Week 1 – Collard greens, oranges, tropical fish food flakes
Week 2 – Mustard greens, melon, crushed dry iguana diet
Week 3 – Crushed alfalfa pellets, carrots, crushed high quality cat food
This may seem rather elaborate and a pain, but it is important in providing the chameleon with as wide a variety of nutrition as possible. Varied diets lessen the chance of a dietary deficiency, and contribute greatly to the overall health of the animal.
Other insects may be offered to the chameleon as well including: king mealworms, mealworms, nightcrawlers (yes, veiled chameleons will eat them, but it makes a mess!), cockroaches, waxworms, pill bugs, and houseflies. The first five insects on this list can be purchased from commercial breeders, bait shops, or pet stores, but the rest must usually be collected. It is difficult to provide enough variety in the veiled chameleon diet solely by relying on the stock kept regularly at pet stores or bait shops, so check around the classified section of herp magazines to locate some sellers of the more exotic insects. Another way to provide variety in veiled chameleon captive diets is to collect insects from a pesticide free area. I use a fine mesh net and sweep it through an area of tall grass. This “meadow plankton” can be a valued part of a captive diet. Do not feed veiled chameleons too many waxworms or mealworms; these insects have a very low Ca:P ratio and can cause problems. Offer two or three different insects at one feeding (provided that the insects will not kill each other in the food dish). Another very important aspect of veiled chameleon captive diets is calcium supplementation.
Although gut-loading improves the nutritional content of feeder insects tremendously, it is also important to ensure that the chameleon is getting enough calcium. Calcium supplementation is an easy way to provide for this necessity. High quality calcium supplements can be purchased at good pet stores, or through mail-order companies. After the insects have been properly gut-loaded, put some insects into a plastic bag and add a pinch of supplement. Shake the bag up and down like a shake-and-bake pork chop so the insects are completely coated. If one keeps a large amount of feeder crickets around at one time, it may be difficult to get some in the bag without inadvertently freeing a large number of extra crickets, which will soon end up in your bedroom chirping all night and driving you crazy. To avoid this annoying encounter, simply place a cardboard tube from a used roll of toilet paper or paper towels in with the crickets. A good number of crickets will always choose to hide in such areas, and the tube can be easily lifted, with the crickets inside, and shaken into the coating bag. The feeder insects should be coated with calcium supplement every day for young veiled chameleons, and every other day for adult veiled chameleons.
Young veileds must be fed every day, twice a day if possible. The best starter food source for young veileds is small crickets, as young veileds tend to regurgitate other insects such as mealworms (Tremper, 1995). Adult veileds will eat every other day. The best way to offer feeder insects to veiled chameleons is in a raised dish. Use an opaque dish with smooth sides so the insects cannot crawl out, but the chameleon can easily locate its food. This prevents the insects from dispersing into the cage and irritating the animal while it sleeps. Variety and proper supplementation are the most important aspects of the veiled chameleon captive diet. Another important aspect of veiled chameleon captive diets is providing clean drinking water.
It is very important to provide veiled chameleons with clean water on a regular basis. Veiled chameleons, and many other arboreal lizards, will not drink from a standing dish of water (although I have heard they can be trained to do so). Veileds just don’t seem to recognize water for what it is unless it is in motion. The best way to provide veiled chameleons with water is to set up a drip system. There are several ways to set up a drip system, but the easiest is to just place an ice cube on the top of the enclosure, with a cup at the bottom to catch the drips as the cube melts. It is best to place the water source so that it drips onto the side of a leaf, where the animal can easily lap it off. Other drip systems can be made from deli cups or medical IV tubing. Some companies are even selling large plastic containers with spigots on them as commercial chameleon drippers. Although these systems work well, they are expensive for what they are. Be careful with drip systems, they can quickly flood the animal’s cage, creating an unhealthy situation.
The proper captive management of veiled chameleons is challenging, but rewarding. Veiled chameleons are extremely interesting reptiles that are beautiful and active enough to watch for hours at a time (better than TV!). The most rewarding aspect of captive veiled chameleon management is the successful reproduction of the species.
Part III – Breeding
A Critical Skill in Veiled Chameleon Breeding:
One of the main duties required to breed veiled chameleons successfully is close and critical observation of the breeding animals before breeding is even attempted. It is of the utmost importance to only breed healthy animals. This is especially true when dealing with female veiled chameleons. Reproduction is a taxing process on the physiology of the female veiled chameleon, and the animal must be watched closely for any problems before she is bred. Breeding unsound veiled chameleons will only result in dead females, infertile eggs, and dead hatchlings. The most important aspect of veiled chameleon health as it relates to breeding is adequate calcium in the diet. Females who lack adequate dietary calcium cannot sustain their own health and provide enough calcium for 20-80 developing embryos. It is obvious then, that animals with any signs of metabolic bone disease must not be bred. The next important step in veiled chameleon breeding is making sure that you have two sexually mature adults of the opposite sex and determining the sexual readiness of the female.
Checking Gender and Sexual Readiness:
First and foremost, make sure that both chameleons are of opposite sex. This may sound obvious, but I have seen people wondering why their chameleons were not breeding when they put them together (both the animals were males). Fortunately, it is easy to distinguish sex in veiled chameleons from birth. Male veiled chameleons have a small, fleshy, triangular appendage stemming from the crux of their rear feet called a tarsal spur. This spur exists even in hatchling veiled chameleons, and is a reliable indicator of sex in this species. There are other morphological signs of sex in veiled chameleons. Male veileds have a much higher casque (the pointy “hat” on top of the head of veiled chameleons) than females, and often display different color patterns. Males generally have bright, canary yellow stripes alternating with green stripes running vertically across their bodies. Often these stripes have dots of various colors within them, the most commonly colored dot is blue, but I have seen yellow, green and black as well. Females are generally an overall soft green color, without large yellow stripes (unless gravid). Chameleons are unique among most animals, different physiological states in chameleons are often reflected in skin color and pattern. Observing changes in skin pattern and color will inform the keeper when a female veiled chameleon is ready to mate.
Female veiled chameleons generally reach sexual maturity anywhere from 4½ to 5 months, but the occasional female may become ready as soon as 3½ months! Female veiled chameleons indicate sexual readiness by displaying robin-egg blue dots on their body. These dots may be all over the body, or only restricted to a small area. There have been reports however, of females not displaying these colors, but willingly mating when placed with a male. Another guideline to follow in determining the females sexual state is observing her behavior when she is placed with the male.
The interaction between female and male chameleons can give the keeper a clue as to the sexual state of the female. Before placing the female into the male’s cage, make sure not to the disturb the male into aggression, as he can hurt the female if aroused this way. Also, it is best only to mate veiled chameleons of similar size, a huge male can do some serious damage to a small female. Keeping these things in mind, place the female into the male’s cage and observe. If the female is ready and receptive to mating she will “ignore” the male after she catches sight of him and will begin to crawl away slowly, retaining her coloration. If she is not receptive, she will let both you and the male know by hissing loudly, gaping, rocking back and forth on a branch, and drastically changing her color to black with yellow and green stripes or spots. Occasionally, I have also seen bright, pumpkin orange spots as well. She will also laterally compress her body to make her look “scarier” to the male. If you observe this interaction, remove the female immediately and try another time.
Gravid females and females that are not sexually receptive will always display warning colors to a male. Male veiled chameleons will display to females by laterally compressing their bodies, rocking back and forth, curling and uncurling their tails, and displaying extremely bright colors. This is how they tell prospective mates how “studly” they are. Male veiled chameleons are at their most colorful when they spot females or are challenging males; the display can be quite impressive and awe-inspiring. When a receptive female begins to crawl away, the male will follow her and attempt to pin her down and climb on top. I have seen some amazing acrobatic feats from male veiled chameleons during mating attempts. Once the male has firmly gripped the female, he will align his cloaca with hers and insert one of his hemipenes. Copulation is usually brief, lasting a few minutes, but sometimes the event can last much longer (depending on the male), and may occur several times during a 24 hour period. If the copulation is effective, the female will display warning colors to the male after he disengages from mating. The female can be removed at this time.
Gravid veiled chameleons will take on a “baseball”-like appearance in their abdomen as the date of oviposition draws closer. Some chameleons I have seen just before oviposition looked like they were going to explode. Veiled chameleons are extremely prolific, clutch sizes from 10 to as high as 100 have been reported. It is interesting to note that veiled chameleons do not produce this many eggs in the wild; wild veileds generally do not produce more than 30 eggs at a time. The reason for this phenomenon is not known, but many people suspect that seasonal fluctuations in temperature, photoperiod, and food availability have something to do with it. Females will lay their eggs 15 to 30 days after a successful copulation. The best method for keeping track of this is to mark the mating date on a calendar, and count 15 days ahead and mark that day “ovipositon” (or the less fancy “eggs”). On day 15, move the female into an egg laying chamber.
Egg laying chambers are very easy and inexpensive to construct. Use a large rubber trashcan and fill the bottom with 6 inches of moist playground sand. Do not use silica sand or concrete mixing sand, as these both can be harmful. Playground sand can be purchased at nurseries or home stores. The sand should be moist enough to form a solid tunnel in, but not wet. Put some branches for the female to climb on, but not out of, the garbage can. I have found it useful to also include a pothos plant, so the female feels more secure.
Most females will refuse food before egg laying, but you can feed a willing female by placing an opaque feeding dish in with her. If this is done, it is very important that the insects cannot escape from the dish. Escaped insects in an egg-laying chamber full of sand will quickly become coated, and if ingested by the female, can cause severe intestinal blockage. When the female is close to laying, she will begin to excavate a large chamber in the sand. When the chamber is to her liking, she will turn around inside of it and begin to lay her eggs. Once all of the eggs have been laid, she will pack the sand down on top, leaving no trace of her activities. Once a female begins to dig, keep a close watch so that the egg laying site may be found easily. Female veileds are exhausted after egg laying, and should be put into a cage where they will not be exposed to stress. Make sure the female drinks water after egg laying. Spraying the cage down with water will usually stimulate this activity. After the female has been cared for, carefully dig up the eggs and incubate them.
There is controversy regarding the proper temperature and humidity for veiled chameleon egg incubation. The mistake most often made in incubating veiled chameleon eggs is incubation at too high a temperature. The greatest degree of success with veiled chameleon eggs is generally achieved at temperatures of 75° to 80°F [24° to 27°C] during the day, with a five or ten degree (F) temperature drop during the night. Veiled chameleon eggs that are incubated at a static 85°F [29°C] or above have a very low hatching rate, and a high rate of hatchling deformitites. There are indications that incubation at even lower temperatures may be successful. Likewise, it is very easy to incubate the eggs with too much humidity, which often results in spoiled eggs. The incubation medium may be sphagnum moss, peat moss, perlite, or vermiculite, but no matter what the material, do not incubate the eggs in wet medium. The incubation medium should be slightly moist and no more. If you notice that many of the eggs are molding, reduce the humidity. If the eggs are beginning to cave in, increase the humidity a bit. The eggs themselves are your best guideline. The best incubation containers I have found are square Tupperware containers with several holes drilled in them for ventilation, but no matter what container is used, make sure the eggs are kept in the dark. Veiled chameleon eggs incubated in lighted conditions have a very low hatch rate. Once the eggs are set up, the difficult part of veiled chameleon breeding occurs–waiting.
Veiled chameleon eggs can take from 4 to 9 months to hatch and can test the mettle of even the most patient herpetoculturist. In the first four months, check the eggs once a week; after that time, check them twice or three times a week. Before the eggs hatch, they shrink slightly and beads of water form on their surface (this is known as “sweating” for obvious reasons). Soon, the hatchling will slit the egg and begin to emerge. You may notice the eggs “oozing” a little before hatching as well. Baby veiled chameleons are extremely cute in a non-traditional sort of way, and generally are very hardy. Set up the baby chameleons as described in the second part of this article (Captive Care) and feed them small crickets (1/8″-1/4″, or ~1cm). Hatchling veiled chameleons will regurgitate other food items such as mealworms or waxworms, so it is best to stick with crickets until the hatchlings are at least one month of age.
Veiled chameleons are one of the hardiest, most prolific, and beautiful species of chameleons to keep. It is the responsibility of every pet owner, regardless of the type of pet, to learn the proper captive care guidelines. Veiled chameleons may not be cuddly pets, but they deserve the best captive care we can provide, even if they do hiss at us on occasion. If anyone who has read this article has any questions regarding veiled chameleons, or other species of reptile (I certainly don’t know them all, but can usually find a book or someone else who does) you may contact me via e-mail at [email protected] or speak to me personally at the CHS meetings. Happy herping!
Annis, John M. 1995. Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) Natural History, Captive Management, and Breeding. In Care and Breeding of Panther, Jackson’s, Veiled, and Parson’s Chameleons. Advanced Vivarium Systems. pp. 77-99.
Bertoni, Ribello M. 1994. Veiled Chameleons. Reptile and Amphibian Magazine. July/August 1994. pp. 65-77.
Henkel, F. W. and Heinecke, S. 1994. Chamaeleons in Terrarium. Landbuch.
Tremper, Ronald L. 1995. Herptoculture of the Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus). In Care and Breeding of Panther, Jackson’s, Veiled, and Parson’s Chameleons. Advanced Vivarium Systems. pp. 101-108.