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Keeping Pygmy Chameleons

I have seen a number of pygmy chameleons for sale again recently, and I am wondering how to go about providing heat and light to them, and if they even make a good choice of species to keep?

The small size and relatively low price of pygmy chameleons (compared with the larger species like the panther) really does make them an attractive option to keep in the modern home. In times gone by, and largely due to a lack of knowledge about them, they acquired a reputation for being rather difficult to manage. Certainly, the number of captive bred individuals that were available used to be very low, and females seemed to be rather delicate. Over the last five years or so though, I would say that we have really started to understand their needs and with advances in technology, not only will they thrive but also, increasing numbers are now being bred. A number of these small lizards are still imported from Tanzania, notably the common leaf chameleon (Rhampholeon kerstenii) and the bearded leaf chameleon (R. brevicaudatus). These tend to arrive in the late summer months through into the early autumn.

Settling in

It is very important if you purchase any of these individuals to bear in mind that many of the females will be gravid at this time of year, and although this can present as an exciting challenge to the experienced reptile keeper, the egg-laying process will take a huge toll on the female, especially after a significant change in her environment. If you do acquire females that appear to be gravid, I would recommend that you make sure that they are properly hydrated, by spraying an area of their quarters regularly with dechlorinated water, and are offered a full spectrum supplement from a specialist supplier such as Vetark. Otherwise, there is a serious risk of calcium depletion after egg laying, resulting not only in metabolic bone disease (MBD), but even the risk of a heart attack. Males on the other hand will usually colour up and start displaying soon after arrival, but again, care should be taken to offer water and to use a supplement for them as well. If you are acquiring imported stock, it will also be worth having their dropping checked for the presence of parasites. It helps to see a specialist reptile vet for this purpose, in terms of discussing the results, although testing can be easily arranged for you by any vet.

Building up a care profile

Technology has moved forward significantly over recent years, and we can now quite easily re-create the environment in which these lizards thrive in the wild. This of course by definition must be the key to providing them with all that they need. The trouble is that we just do not know that much about them still in terms of what they would eat in the wild, and how they obtain critical minerals. It is much easier to cater for their environmental needs, based on their area of distribution. You cannot go far wrong if you seek to replicate similar daylight periods, humidity, and the temperature range that they would normally experience across the year, plus the average ultraviolet index (UVI) for that species. Start by using your search engine to discover as much as you can about the species of pygmy chameleon that you are thinking of acquiring. You will be amazed at how much information you will be able to locate, but have a pad and pen to hand, so you can write down useful details and so build up a care profile. Where is the species likely to be most commonly seen? Is it nocturnal, crepuscular or diurnal? Does it live on the ground or is it arboreal? What types of food has it been seen to consume? These questions will give you a great basis from which to start planning the type of set up that will be required. You will see from the data in Tanzania that it gets very warm indeed in the open land. The forests in this area are very humid, as well as being very dense, thereby providing good cover. Pygmy chameleons are arboreal forest-dwellers, and have a thin skin. This allows them to hide in the lower, cooler reaches of the forest and obtain the heat and light that they require in this cooler and shadier section of the understory. In common with most chameleons, they are highly insectivorous and will consume a large quantity of small invertebrates.

Feeding considerations

In the wild, this diet would no doubt consist of many fly species, springtails, small millipedes, tiny spiders, ants, moths, butterflies and termites. The list just goes on; it would be very varied, with these lizards feeding on whatever they can catch. However, we do not have access to this range of invertebrates, but we can offer a choice of items such as fruit flies, pinhead crickets and small calciworms. You may also have access to aphids in a garden during the warmer months of the year, but you need to be certain they will not have been sprayed with any chemicals. What we can do, in order to compensate for the lack of dietary variety in vivarium live foods, is to use gut loading, encouraging the invertebrates to eat a mineral and vitamin-rich food before offering them to your chameleons. You can then also sprinkle the invertebrates with a good quality supplement as mentioned previously. Try to match the amount of food that you offer to the appetite of your chameleons. Never feed more crickets than can be eaten in a single feeding session, as chameleons can be easily injured by their bites, and this will potentially lead on to serious infections.

These chameleons are very unusual, in that they can be keptin groups comprised of one male with one or more females,assuming they have adequate space.

The vivarium environment

When planting your enclosure, I would strongly advise that you use live plants. These will look much better than plastic ones, plus they help to maintain the humidity level and of course, they also provide a place for the females to lay eggs. Plants can now be selected that will thrive inside vivariums with few problems. You can purchase suitable plants of this type that will be safe to use in such surroundings from Gill at www. justairplants.com – she will be able to advise you on the best choices too. You then need to think about hydration. Chameleons of all kinds struggle to use water bowls and as such, they are termed as “leaf drinkers”. In simple terms, this just means that they obtain water from droplets running down leaves and branches. It is also worth pointing out that they, like most reptiles, will be able to obtain water from early morning fog.

A good misting system or manual spraying of their quarters during the day will ensure that these chameleons can hydrate themselves properly on a regular basis, just as they would in the wild. It is also worth pointing out that many of the conditions related to and causing early onset MBD are made very much worse in dehydrated animals. Water is a key part of the vitamin D3 cycle. It is also a great idea to have a small computer type fan circulating air around the enclosure. This must not be too powerful or it could disturb the thermal gradient, but good airflow reduces the risk of fungal growth and overheating (especially in the summer), while assisting the healthy growth of live plants. In terms of lighting, we can now be quite specific. We do not want or need to irradiate the animals! Pygmy chameleons do not like bright light but they have evolved over millions of years to thrive in a typical understory/leaf scatter environment. This means that they are shy and retiring, and will usually keep largely hidden behind leaves and branches. Light bounces around the forest especially where there is a high humidity, and these lizards are able to utilise the energy from light in the form of infrared (heat), as well as UVA and UVB very well but in lower levels. In a 60x60cm (24x24in) vivarium, I would use a single 6% HO T5 lamp and reflector. You should place the fitting outside of the mesh and plant the enclosure well, so as to mimic an overhead canopy.

Your chameleons will then be able to use the light as needed, seeking it out as it travels through this re-created canopy that you have designed. Plant the cool end more densely, in accordance with the principles of the all-important light and shade method. I would aim to provide a UV index of 2-3 at the highest point, with this figure decreasing from there as the light travels downwards into the enclosure. As far as heating is concerned, you have lots of options, but whatever you choose, always invest in a good quality thermostat. This will enable you to generate and regulate an effective thermal gradient, preventing the risk of overheating. Pygmy chameleons are lizards that will die very quickly if their surroundings become too hot. Also, remember that all light sources – whether emitting UV or not – must be placed above the enclosure and not allowed to shine into the occupant’s eyes from the side. This is otherwise likely to trigger eye problems. I am also becoming a real fan of a new product available for reptiles called Verm-X. This uses herbs to increase useful gut flora and I feel that providing this natural compound for recently acquired reptiles will stimulate the beneficial bacteria and other microbes that make up the gut flora, assisting the animal to obtain the nutrients from its food that are particularly essential at this stage. So to conclude – do I think that pygmy chameleons are a good species to keep? I have to say yes. This group are ideally suited to intermediate level and experienced keepers. Technology has made it easier to maintain them, and hopefully, breeding will soon become more commonplace than it is at present.

© John Courteney-Smith Taken from “Practical Reptile Keeping” magazine

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