Husbandry of Montane Species of Chameleons
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By Jennifer Greene
Within the last few decades, significant advances in the captive husbandry of chameleons has made it possible for a handful of species to be kept with moderate to significant success, with breeding taking place regularly for the most popular species. Veiled Chameleons and Panther Chameleons are two of the most popular species, being the most commonly kept and bred of the numerous chameleon species out there. As two of the larger species available, and the hardiest, their popularity is well deserved as excellent beginner species of chameleons. However, for the keeper looking for a more unusual jewel to add to their collection, there are a few species of montane chameleons that are not too much more difficult to keep. My focus in this article is the easier to keep montane species hailing from East Africa, namely those around Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, as these species are often seasonally available in the reptile hobby.
My personal favorites are the Rudis Chameleons, which are small little jewels from the mountains around western Tanzania, southern Uganda, and the eastern edge of the Deomcratic Republic of the Congo. The chameleon usually available under the common name "Rudis Chameleon" is in most cases actually Trioceros sternfeldi, rather than Trioceros rudis, but fortunately care is essentially identical for both species. There is some variation among populations resulting in differences in appearance of both species, with some T. sternfeldi having brilliant and exotic blue and yellow coloration while others are a more emerald green depending on which locale they are from. T. rudis range in color from a yellowish green to pea green to a brilliant grass green, with most having a yellowish stripe down their sides. They mature at 3" to 4" snout-to-vent length, making them small but not so tiny they are exceptionally delicate, like the pygmy leaf chameleons of Madagascar.
Another montane species worth considering is the Jackson's Chameleon, of which there are 3 subspecies. The most readily available is Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus, which will be the subspecies referred to within this article (being the hardiest in my experience, and the most suited for the beginning to intermediate chameleon keeper). Naturally occurring in Tanzania and Kenya, there are also populations in Hawaii as well as Florida, and rumors of a small population located in a coastal region of San Diego County. Males have 3 horns, one on their orbital (eye) crests, as well as a rostral (nose) horn. Females are typically lacking the distinctly large horns of the males, but some may have poorly developed rostral horns. Coloration of males is usually a light green, with some having yellowish tinted heads and backs and bluish flanks. Females are typically a jewel green, with some individuals having a reddish pattern while at rest. Adults range in size from 5" to 7" snout-to-vent length, with females often being slightly smaller than males.
Two other species can be kept using the methods I will be describing, and they are the Kenyan High Casqued Chameleon, or Trioceros hoehnelii, and the Werner's Three Horned Chameleon, or Trioceros werneri. Both of these species are similar in size to the Rudis, but they do look distinctly different. T. hoehnelii can be exceptionally brightly colored, with lime green highlights, teals, and silvery blue colors throughout their body for males, with females being a more subdued silvery grey or rusty brown. Werner's look like smaller, stouter Jackson's, with the brilliant green coloration of the Rudis, with some individuals having reddish or teal tones to them.
For all species, while smaller individuals (4" or smaller SVL) can be housed in cages as small as 16" x 16" x 30", I highly recommend at least a cage that is 18" x 18" x 36", if not one of the largest cages commonly available at 24" x 24" x 48". While they can be housed in a smaller cage, this limits the range of temperatures you can offer them, as well as limits their available space. I have had success with all of the species I described above being housed in the largest size of screen cage, as well as in the larger sizes of ExoTerra glass terrariums. For neonate to mid-sized juvenile chameleons up to 4" SVL, a terrarium that is 36" wide by 24" tall and 18" deep is suitable, but for adult chameleons I highly recommend the largest size, which is 36" x 18" x 36". For the montane species, glass terrariums (not glass cages, but front-opening terrariums) can work exceptionally well, as they can be kept at a more consistent level of humidity than fully screen cages. The larger glass cages also allow for space for the chameleons to move around the cage, which they will do throughout the day, especially when provided with an appropriate temperature gradient.
Babies can be housed in smaller cages than adults, but as they grow make sure to offer them more space!
Temperatures for these chameleons can be much cooler in range than for the more common panther and veiled chameleons. The cooler ends of the cage should drop down to the mid to low 70's, while the warmest areas within the cage can range upwards to 85, with the extreme high being 90. In smaller cages, the high temperature should not rise above 85, but in larger cages a slightly higher high temperature is acceptable. As all of these chameleons are from the mountain areas, they do not require exceptionally warm basking areas, but they can benefit from the option to seek it out if they are in a large enough cage. Jackson's Chameleons in particular can tolerate warmer temperatures, as evidenced from their thriving populations in Florida and Hawaii, both of which are much warmer areas than their natural habitat, but captive chameleons should always have a significantly cooler area of the cage to retreat to. Night time temperatures can and should drop down to the mid to low 70s, with drops down the 60s being perfectly acceptable as long as during the day a basking area is offered.
When provided with suitable basking temperatures, your chameleons will color up and look their best like this Jackson's!
Achieving these temperatures can be accomplished two ways. Not only do chameleons require warmth to bask under, but they require UVB as well. UVB is the wavelength of light required for your chameleon to properly metabolize vitamin D3, which is essential for absorbing calcium. Captive chameleons need artificial sources of all three to thrive properly, and the first part of caring for your chameleon is providing them with suitable lighting. A specialized reptile fluorescent tube is the most common method of offering your chameleon UVB, with different brands offering varying intensities of UVB. A 5.0 fluorescent tube should be ideal for most applications with montane chameleons, and the tube itself should be long enough to stretch across the entire top of the cage. Since relatively cool basking temperatures are all that is needed, a 50 watt basking bulb should be sufficient for providing a small, warm basking area without overly heating the rest of the cage. Daylight style reptile bulbs can be used as well, but a slightly higher wattage may be needed for larger cages.
If you have the larger cages as I recommended earlier, and your home remains fairly cool (between 72 and 75 degrees), it is also possible to consider using a mercury vapor bulb. These bulbs are quite warm, and provide significantly higher amounts of UVB, but in a larger cage offering your chameleons the options to escape the heat, they are worth considering. If the basking areas below the light are too warm, the bulb may be lifted up and off the top of the cage several inches to ensure that the basking areas are not too hot. It is vitally important to check that at least the bottom half of the cage returns to temperatures below 80 degrees when using a mercury vapor bulb, and if you cannot keep the cage cool then switch to a fluorescent light and traditional, lower wattage basking light.
In combination with the UVB light, it is essential to provide your chameleons with supplementation to meet their dietary needs for calcium and vitamin D3. Chameleons housed outdoors do not need D3 added to their diet, as the intensity of UVB from natural sunlight enables them to metabolize D3 on their own - however, this is only valid if your chameleon is outdoors for more than 8 hours a day several days a week. If your chameleon is indoors primarily, at least some vitamin D3 should be incorporated into their diet. Due to their smaller size, these chameleons do not necessarily require supplementation with every meal. For adults, a light coating of a balanced reptile calcium and multivitamin can be dusted on to their feeder insects every second or third feeding. Neonates to juveniles, due to their extremely small size, typically only need a light coating of vitamins on their insects once every 7 to 10 days. Rearing of neonate chameleons of the species discussed here (Hoehneli, Jackson's, Rudis, and Werner's) can be exceptionally difficult, and is typically best left to the more advanced keeper - if you have recently purchased a juvenile of these species, talk to the breeder regarding their current routine for the babies.
When you see how tiny these little guys are, it is not hard to see how easy it could be to over-do their supplementation!
Now that you have the essentials, the fun part of acquiring a new chameleon is often the decor. Manzanita branches work well, especially when combined with live plants such as ficus trees. These smaller species of chameleons will be able to utilize the finer, thinner branches of the ficus trees, and within the trees themselves the humidity will be somewhat higher than just out in the sides of the cages. Foliage is vital to the health and happiness of your chameleons, providing them with perches as well as visual barriers. Having plentiful amounts of foliage in the cage ensures that your chameleon feels safe and secure, which in turn keeps their stress levels low. Incorporating live plants into your cage is highly recommended, as live plants are not only aesthetically pleasing but they increase humidity for your chameleons. I highly recommend the use of magnetic ledges and planters to add perches and levels to your cage, which your chameleons will use to bask and hunt from. Using magnets to attach them means that they are fantastically flexible decor items, allowing you to adjust basking perches and locations as needed. Get creative!
When it comes to feeding, don't be afraid to seek out and offer as wide a variety of prey items as possible. Keep in mind that in the wild, these chameleons would be eating at least several dozen different types of insects, if not more, and by comparison their diet in captivity seems paltry. Appropriate sized roaches of different species are often readily accepted, with Dubia roaches being a popular staple due to their rapid growth rate and ease of breeding. In addition, offering appropriate sized crickets, mealworms, superworms, and waxworms is highly encouraged. Most chameleons will also cheerfully consume hornworms and silkworms, which are soft bodied and easy for them to digest. While you do not need to offer every single prey item at each feeding, try to make an effort to cycle through several different types throughout the month.
In conclusion, keeping a montane species of chameleon is not significantly more difficult, but they do have special considerations regarding temperatures. Once set up and established, they can be rewarding little jewels within your home, without the need for excessively large cages or intense heat. If you are looking for a new chameleon to add to your collection, and desire something a little off the beaten path, definitely check out the chameleons mentioned within this article!