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    Panthers aplenty at Chameleoco

    My job takes me all over the UK and abroad, writes John Courteney-Smith, and I get to meet some really interesting people and see their collections. Every now and again, I make contact with someone who is totally dedicated to advancing our understanding of a particular species or group of animals.

    Jamie Hardy is definitely in this category. He runs Chameleoco in the north-west of England. You are almost certain to have seen his chameleons either on television or in the press, probably without realising it, as Chameleoco has established an enviable reputation in the media for being able to provide stunning, captive-bred stock.

    Yet it was not just the highly coloured panther chameleons that caught my attention when I visited Jamie. It was his thoughtful insights into their natural lifestyles, combined with his dedication to developing the best possible husbandry systems for them that made me reflect.

    For many years, chameleons generally were regarded as a group of animals that were only suitable for the most advanced keepers, but this view has changed markedly of late. Already veiled (Yemen) chameleons are being kept very successfully, even by newcomers to the hobby.

    Caring for the collection

    Q. Jamie, you certainly have a fantastic collection! Can you please give me some insight into how you plan your breeding programme?

    A. I keep a breeding collection of males and females from a selection of my favourite locales, which I can manage without being overburdened. I also have a few other species of chameleon that I do not breed from, but just love keeping.

    I breed very small numbers, and am careful not to pair any chameleon until it is fully mature. Just because these lizards may be sexually receptive does not necessarily mean that they are ready to breed. They must be fully developed before I will even contemplate breeding them, and I would rather wait if in doubt.

    I believe if females are bred from too early, then they will not produce viable offspring as they will not have sufficient body resources to sustain their growth, let alone any offspring.

    In addition, I keep my hatchlings until they are around 4-5 months, as by this stage, I can be certain that they are thriving and will go on to adapt well to a new home, being able to recover well from stress of the move at this age. Chameleons are very sensitive lizards. To be honest, the number of chameleons that I am able to pass to other breeders depends largely on how many I am willing to let go! It’s never an easy decision…

    Q. Your systems are very impressive. Everything is clean and very well-organised. How do you manage the day-to-day maintenance and keep up with feeding, and monitoring incubation?

    A. There are no shortcuts – it takes a lot of time and dedication. I love my animals and that is the most important thing in my view. I am therefore willing to give them all the time and the commitment that they need.

    I keep everything substrate-free, and so removing faeces is simple on a daily basis. I make sure that uneaten food is also taken out, and I use F10 veterinary disinfectant to clean the enclosures regularly. This regime makes maintenance quite straightforward, and so I have more time to dedicate to feeding and watering.

    Keen observation is one of the things that I find is an essential part of chameleon keeping-only by watching them closely can you monitor their health. Ensuring that they are actively hunting down and devouring prey is particularly important, as any deviation from a panther chameleon’s instinctive eagerness to eat should be viewed with concern. As should a reluctance or refusal to drink.

    Lighting

    Q. As you know, Jamie, we are passionate at Arcadia Reptile about re-creating a wild type habitat for animals housed in vivarium surroundings. You seem to have fully embraced new technology, as well as adopting techniques such as the light and shade method when it comes to caring for your animals. What changes have you noticed in your collection as a result?

    A. Well firstly, there is no doubt that UVB lighting is essential for chameleons. They need it so they can synthesise vitamin D3, which in turn then allows them to absorb and utilise the calcium they ingest as part of their diet.

    We need to use suitable artificial lights in their accommodation to mimic the sun, as a way of substituting for the UVB that chameleons are naturally exposed to in the wild. The method of creating a natural balance between light and shade is essential though, as no chameleon would be fully exposed to UVB radiation all day, as they climb around in bushes and tress.

    This is especially true with species such as Parson’s chameleon that naturally live in areas of dense foliage and branches. Although they are diurnal, being active during the day-time, and need UVB radiation, they spend a lot of the time in the shade and do not generally bask in areas of direct sunlight. You must therefore make sure that along with providing a good quality source of UVB, you meet their requirements for shade in their quarters too.

    Chameleons like to spend time in areas fully protected from light that have a lower temperature. This opportunity to thermoregulate in their quarters is essential to these lizards as they rely on their environment to maintain their body temperature. The chameleon will also recognise when it has obtained optimal vitamin D3 synthesis via exposure to UVB light, so providing areas shaded from UVB is also essential for the regulation of this vitamin.

    When used correctly, good quality UVB lighting enhances the colouration of the chameleon as some of the pigments in their skin reflect and absorb light. In adult chameleons, and particularly male panthers, this can result in amazing displays of colour. Correct usage of these systems will also help ensure that the chameleon does not fall ill with any calcium-related deficiency diseases.

    You should always be careful when deciding where to place your UVB lamp though, and always check the manufacturer’s recommendations for distance and ‘burn-in’ time, as UVB bulbs emit a higher amount of UVB when first used.

    A vital piece of equipment that allows me to check the UVB output of bulbs is my Solarmeter 6.2. This will read the overall amount of light within the UVB spectrum at any given point where the sensor is placed. These are a good way of checking when a bulb is diminishing in its output, and will soon need replacing.

    Since using Arcadia T5 lighting, my adult males have shown really impressive clear colours, and my live plants have flourished, helping create a much more naturalistic environment in their quarters. The light penetration through the enclosure looks really natural, as is the overall hue of the light produced by the lamp.

    The Importance of Diet

    Q. You seem very passionate about offering dietary variety to your animals and use a wide range of grubs and live, flighted flies. Why do you think that these varied food sources are so important?

    A. Naturally, a chameleon would come across many varied prey items in the wild. There will be flying insects, rapidly moving invertebrates and slower moving creatures too. I feel that it is essential to ensure that this natural behaviour, allowing them to use a variety of hunting methods to stalk a variety of prey, can be pursued in domestic surroundings.

    Being offered the typical livefood diet based on a couple of types of terrestrial insect is clearly not what happens in the wild, and unsurprisingly, chameleons will sometimes begin to lose their appetite when offered the same prey items at every feed. I therefore incorporate a lot of different feeder insects into their diets, to maintain their appetite so that they are encouraged to feed each day.

    I use flies, roaches, aphids, and many different worms alongside the more common prey items, and my chameleons are always eager to hunt them down, adapting their style accordingly. Invertebrates have different nutritional values, and so using a range of such creatures also helps to ensure that they are receiving a healthy, varied diet. I also make sure that all insects are both gut-loaded, and dusted accordingly with a vitamin and mineral powder before being offered to the chameleons.

    Growing populatrity

    Q. Jamie, you are convinced that almost everybody can now keep chameleons at home without significant problems. In fact, you produce many care sheets and a recommended product list to help in this regard, so what do you think has changed, allowing chameleons to thrive in domestic surroundings?

    A. Naturally, a chameleon would come across many varied prey items in the wild. There will be flying insects, rapidly moving invertebrates and slower moving creatures too. I feel that it is essential to ensure that this natural behaviour, allowing them to use a variety of hunting methods to stalk a variety of prey, can be pursued in domestic surroundings.

    There are a number of reasons. Firstly, many more products are now available, aimed specifically to meet their needs. This has made it much easier to ensure that there is a universal understanding of what chameleons require, in order to thrive. This in turn means that new keepers are not having to guess and use equipment which needs adapting for these lizards.

    There are now enclosures specifically designed to meet the rather specific housing needs of chameleons, constructed with good ventilation and cleanliness in mind. These have all mesh sides and easily removable floor areas.

    Also, as mentioned previously, there is now artificial lighting that is specifically designed to mimic the kind of light and radiation that exists in the rainforest homes of these lizards, plus there are more livefood options too. This means that taking care of a chameleon in the home is much easier.

    I still think that you should be prepared to carry out your own research and reading though, in order to understand the needs of these lizards, why such conditions are required and how best to combine the fantastic range of products that are available, in order to ensure their care is free of unexpected problems.

    The appeal of the hobby

    Q. When you started keeping reptiles, did you begin with a chameleon yourself, and if not, what first attracted you to this group of lizards?

    No, my first reptile was a Chinese water dragon. I guess that like many people, although I always wanted to own chameleons, I was unsure of how easy they would be to keep successfully. After reading up on them for several years, I decided to purchase a veiled chameleon. Then, a few years later, this led to the purchase of my first panther chameleon, christened Bubblegum, who is still alive and well today, on display at Manchester Museum.

    Chameleons are fascinating creatures. I’m completely entranced by them. They are so highly specialised and the stunning range of features they possess, from their amazing eyes that rotate independently through to their kaleidoscopic colouring still fascinates me!

    Q. I see that you are also breeding day geckos and red-eye tree frogs. Doyou plan to expand your breeding rooms and include more species?

    Occasionally, I am fortunate enough to find a couple of eggs in my day gecko enclosure, but these and the tree frogs are part of my personal collection.

    Q. How do you see the hobby developing in the next 10 years?

    With more and more keepers sharing their knowledge – both successes and failures – we will be able to gain an even better understanding of how to keep and surroundings. It is amazing just how many people today keep reptiles, and I’m sure this number will continue to grow in the future.

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

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