Yes, it happens more often than you think! One moment you are enjoying your single female Jackson’s Chameleon and the next moment you have 22 little babies crawling around. It is time to move fast! So here is what you need to know to take care of those dinosaurs that have appeared on your doorstep. Below is an audio podcast that talks about this situation. Download the Chameleon Breeder Podcast to your phone if you would like to listen while you are rushing out to the stores to get required items! The text here is based off the transcript of this episode so you will get the same information reading or listening.
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Today’s episode is titled Surprise! Chameleon Babies!! Yay!…Yikes!! In honor of all the emotions we go through when baby chameleons hatch or are born. But, you ask, what is the Yikes in there for? Aren’t breeders all prepared for hatch date? Perhaps, but then there are the ones that are surprised by eggs hatching two months before estimated hatch date and then there are the livebearers that can give birth at any inconvenient time – such as 9 months after you have brought back a single female Jackson’s chameleon from the show with no intention of ever breeding her and you walk down the stairs one morning and instead of a nice cup of Chameleon Cold Brew waiting for you, you find a cage full of baby chameleons and one tired momma. Whoa! Talk about needing to find an accelerated crash course in baby chameleon care! So this is where we will start. Experienced breeders or even first time breeders who have researched baby care may end up surprised, but they at least know exactly what they need to do quickly. I am going to start off at the level of the person who doesn’t even know if the babies should be separated from their mother!
So let’s set the ideal scenario first. A prepared breeder will have caging ready long before hatch date. In fact they have purchased everything they need right about when the eggs were laid or the live bearer was bred. Half way into the incubation they started their fruit fly cultures to make sure the when the babies hatched out there would be plenty of food immediately available. And then it is just a waiting game for that joyous moment.
The scenario furthest from ideal is the family with their first chameleon enjoying learning about UVB and whose biggest challenge right now is deciding whether to let dubia cockroach feeders in the house coming face to face with 20 little aliens who have invaded their chameleon cage. Guess what, my fellow chameleon wranglers? Some chameleons are livebearers! And you know what is really cool? They have developed the ability to store sperm and impregnate themselves at a later date! So, no, you don’t have to have a male in your single chameleon household to have babies! Ain’t nature grand!
So, let’s talk about the basics of chameleon babyhood. First of all, most chameleons lay eggs, but there are respectable number that have live birth. Ones that are easy to find at the time of this podcast are Jackson’s Chameleons, Trioceros sternfeldi, Trioceros wernerii, and South African Bradypodion. Live birth is thought to be an adaptation of chameleons that live in areas that experience cold weather and so allows the chameleon to be more in control of the babies’ development conditions. The mother can bask to warm everything up. Chameleons are born/hatched fully ready to go out into the world as an independent bug exterminator. Neither egg hatched babies nor live birthed babies have a relationship with their mother. Both versions come into the world with their stomachs full which gives them a day or two to get orientated before they need to start eating. Chameleons disperse and find their own way about the world so, ideally, they would all be raised individually. But the sibling aggression usually starts out low and the competition between babies does not get overly physical for a month or two. There’s your ten sentence summary. Let’s get into actionable steps.
Let’s use the scenario of having a single female Jackson’s chameleon who has given birth to a surprise litter of 20 babies. So you walk downstairs and are greeted with 20 baby chameleons. First, take a second to be completely amazed at these incredible creatures! Chameleon babies are the cutest things ever! Next, we want to prepare a place for these little guys. The mothers do not seem to have a desire to eat their babies, but I am unaware of any study that tells us how long this grace period lasts. The only mother aggression I have observed was a mother that bit her baby because the baby crawled on her while she was completing the birthing process and this annoyed her. I have never seen a mother eat her young during the birthing time. This is not true for other adult chameleons who have no problem snapping up a baby. So although we will not panic, we will, with all reasonable haste, prepare an emergency holding container. All that is required initially is a container and plants or perching sticks. Make sure the sticks do not allow the chameleons to crawl out. Their initial instinct is to scatter and find foliage to hide in so know you have a bunch of nomads on your hands on the first day. Plastic sweater boxes are perfect for the first holding tank. Take a big sweater box, put small plants and anchored sticks propped up and you are set. Chameleon babies will want to climb so give them sticks that are stuck in the pot so they go up at a diagonal angle. Make sure you have enough sticks and leaves on the plant that the babies are not climbing over each other. If you have high sided cereal bowls or large Tupperware containers or mixing bowl you can use them as well. We will go over a more permanent holding set-up later. Right now your job is to get them a place to stay that is not in the cage with mom. For the ultimate panic situation you can use a plugged up bathtub to hold the babies until you can gather a more appropriate set-up. Put sticks, houseplants, or even just a bunch of crumpled up newspaper at the tub bottom for them to hang onto. Make sure the tub drain is plugged, it is completely dry, and none of the leaves or sticks allow escape over the edge. Now and any time in the first few weeks, make sure there is no pooling water. Even a little bit! Babies have this habit of drowning themselves even in a water drop so small you were amazed they could get their head in it. I wish I were exaggerating about this.
Now the thought may cross your mind – wouldn’t it be easier to just move the chameleon mom and leave the babies in the already set-up cage? Kind of. You can make it really easy on yourself and put a tree in the shower and just move the mother chameleon there while you figure out a more permanent housing for the babies, but this only works if you are sure she has had all her babies and it isn’t always easy to tell when this is done. Though I suppose the worse thing that could happen is you move a baby from the shower into the cage. You’ll have to use your best judgment as to what is best in the situation you find yourself in.
The birthing process can take a while. Often you don’t know when it started or how much longer she will be dropping babies. The mother will be pacing the cage and be dropping babies at various locations. The babies come out in a sack. This sack is scraped onto a branch or dropped to the bottom of the cage. Do not worry about the drop hurting the baby. They are essentially blobs at this point and the drop is thought to help shock them into the real world. When they wake up the baby will work to crawl out of this sack. It may look complicated, but these babies know what they are doing. If a baby appears to be struggling with being born I suggest leaving it alone. Not all babies got all the nutrients they needed during gestation and some have birth defects. I believe it is best to let nature take its course and not help out ones that are not strong enough to complete the process themselves. Of course, that is just a guideline. Goodness knows I have not always listened to my own advice.
Let’s assume the initial panic is over with. You have a litter of baby chameleons sitting in a container or two or three and you have a chance to figure out your next move. Whew. Okay, here is your action item list.
1) The mother. You may have noticed that the mother started to go off feed for the last week or so. (“going off feed” means she ate less and less). That is because the babies were taking up so much space inside her. That space is now empty and she will be ravenous. We have a big job to do with the babies so let’s take a couple minutes here and fill up her feeding bowl with some big juicy crickets or other feeders for when she comes out of her birthing mode and her brain gets the signal telling her how hungry she is!
2) Evaluate your options. The babies are safe for the moment and mother is in recovery. Now is the time to figure out what you want to do with the babies. You have two options: Keep them and raise them up or give them away. Selling them is not a good option as they shouldn’t be sold until they are about three months old. If you decide this whole baby thing was not what you signed up for and want to give them to someone who can take care of them better than you then you can find chameleon people in your area by hopping onto chameleon themed Facebook pages or the chameleon forums (at chameleonforums.com) and sharing your situation. Raising up baby chameleons is a challenge. If you are giving them away I suggest finding someone experienced at those mentioned locations. The sooner you can pass them to an experienced chameleon person the better. Resist handing them out to inexperienced family members or co-workers. They are cute, but unless any of them happen to have fruit fly cultures going this probably relegates the babies to a short life. If you give them away then your action item list stops here. If you elect to raise them up then this action item list gets a bit longer! Let’s go on….
3) Food. The first thing you have to do is figure out how to feed these little guys. For newborns you have two options – pinhead crickets and fruitflies. Both of these options can be overnighted to you if you get your order in that afternoon. The advantage of crickets is that they are ready to eat when you receive them (although we will be discussing gutloading). Fruitflies are more tricky because usually you get starter cups which will take a week or two before they “bloom” or are “producing”. You will end up with a cup with fruit fly food and a bunch of pupae which are useless in the immediate future. The key to avoiding disappointment is to call the fruit fly retailer and ask specifically if the fruit fly cups are producing. If they say no then you can still buy them as you will need food in a couple weeks as well. But you need to move to the next provider if you want the fruit flies to arrive ready to be fed. There are two varieties of fruit flies available to us. We call the smaller fruit fly “melanogaster” and the larger fruit fly “Hydei”. Chameleon babies can normally take in the larger one, but you can’t go wrong with the smaller one. If you have a choice get melanogaster as that is the safest. If you do not have a choice get whatever they have! If you live in an area where there are wild fruit flies you an also put a cup of fruit in the baby cage to attract fruit flies for free.
When the pin head crickets get in you can sprinkle a small amount in the baby chameleon cage and see if they are ready to eat yet, but make sure you put the rest in a Tupperware container where you have some vegetables for them to eat and fill their bellies so they are more nutritious for the babies.
A good estimate on how much to plan for is ten food items a day per baby. This gives you a little buffer to account for escapees and feeder deaths. So expect to be buying 1000 crickets every five days for a 20 baby litter.
4) Baby caging. Once food is lined up we will need to get your babies out of the bathtub and large mixing bowls and into something more long term appropriate. The simplest beginner baby container is a 66 quart Sterilite plastic sweater box. There are many sizes so you can just go to your department store and find a sweater box or two that has high enough sides that everything that is supposed to stay inside stays inside. In this box you can place a variety of 4” potted house plants and branches that are small enough for little chameleon feet to grasp. It is very important that you have a lot of space. Although baby chameleons may not overtly bite each other, the subtle dominance plays start almost immediately. You’ll see this starting with them crawling over each other. It starts with just wanting to get somewhere, but very soon you’ll see that there is a deliberate choice to go a certain direction that requires another to be walked over. So the more perching spots you can create and the more equal you can make these spots the better. Every clutch or litter is different as far as aggression towards each other. I have had panther chameleon clutches that seem to live in harmony in the same tub and quadricornis clutches that wanted to tear each other’s throats out at a couple days old. Most of the time I just saw a subtle progression of dominance contests. Somewhere around two months old they may start biting off tail tips. But let’s get you through the first week before we worry about all that!
5) Setting up Caging. Now is where there is some expense involved. And, make no mistake, raising chameleons up from babies is expensive. There is the initial equipment cost, but you won’t have time to think about this as you watch your money flow out the door for feeders. If you have ever complained about the prices of baby panther chameleons then you get the lucky chance to see for yourself how much it costs to raise a clutch.
Once we have the bins you will need to get appropriate lights in. There are two that you need. The first is a daylight bulb to provide seeing light and the second is a UVB bulb to provide UVB rays . Do not cut corners on these. These are critical to your chameleons’ health. The calcium in the supplements you will be buying soon cannot be used without Vitamin D3 in the chameleons’ body and UVB wavelengths are what the body uses to create vitamin D3. You have hopefully already gone through this with your adult chameleon so I don’t think we are breaking new ground here. Just know that the $20 UVB bulb is not negotiable when raising baby chameleons!
Heat lamps can be a simple reflector and incandescent bulb. You are just looking for something to create a warm-up spot for the little guys. You don’t need anything fancy here. A trip to the home improvement store is all that is needed for this. Just make sure that you don’t create too hot of an area. The low 90’s is a good maximum. If you don’t have a thermometer just place your hand on the perching spot under the light. If it feel like a comfortable warming to your hand then you are good. If it gets uncomfortably hot to your hand then it will dehydrate and heat stress a baby chameleon.
6) Watering. Chameleons drink water off of leaves so you will need a spray bottle that can generate a fine mist. I suggest lightly misting your babies a couple times a day for the first weeks. But a big warning here is to not let pools of water gather. You can line the floor with paper towels to avoid pools of water or just wipe it all up. Babies drowning is a real problem even if you think that little bit is really not enough for a baby to get stuck. Those are big heads on those little bodies and pulling it out of the water may not be as easy as getting it in and, for all we know, they may not even understand what is going on before it is too late. I am not sure why this is a problem. Just beware of water gathering into a pool. They get stronger very quickly so just be on the lookout for the first week or two. After that they have their wits about them.
7) Supplements. Growing bodies need calcium. The food we feed them, like crickets, are often high in phosphorus which negates calcium so we have to dust the food items with calcium powder. If you have a species like a panther chameleon or veiled you can get the regular calcium with D3. I use both calcium without vitamin D3 in concert with Calcium with D3. So I have two bottles. If you have a montane species like jacksons and other livebearers I suggest calcium with low D3. Repashey has a supplement like this. It has worked well for me so far for my montanes.
Whoops, Term alert! We will get periodic interruptions to this podcast like this everytime I catch myself using a chameleon world term that may not be obvious to new comers. Not promising I will catch them all, but I will try! When we talk of “Montanes” we are talking about chameleons that come from higher altitudes and experience some pretty cold nights. They typically want to be kept in cooler temperatures than veileds and panthers. The most famous montane is the Jackson’s chameleon. Live birth was developed to adapt to colder weather so I believe all live bearers are montanes. No warm area live bearer comes to mind at the moment. But there are egg layers like deremensis, quadricornis and montium which fall into the montane category as well. As you would expect, these chameleons would have different captive conditions necessary and they also have different nutritional needs. Unfortunately, we in the community are still working out just what those needs are. We battle with edema, which is excess fluids under the skin, that could be caused by oversupplementation. And the proper nutrition supplement changes between chameleon species, too. There is soooooo much work that needs to be done in this area. If you are truly smitten by chameleons and want to make a difference. You only need to pick one species and work with it consistently over the years developing a proper nutrition regimen and you will have moved us all forward. Seriously. At this time, we have a solid nutritional regimen for panther chameleons, but only shreds of ideas for all the other chameleon species!
And, just a reminder, I will be using the Latin name for most chameleons only because the common names are long and sometimes confusing. May as well bite the bullet and learn the scientific names because that is what we all use. I make exceptions for Veiled, Panther, and Jackson’s chameleons and any other where there is a common name that works well.
Anyway, one thing we have found, at least anecdotally, is that montanes seem to want less supplementation than other chameleons. I say anecdotally because there really isn’t solid science on this yet. Hint, hint. Please, I’d love it if someone in my chameleon wrangling listenership would grow up in biology and continue serious work in this field!
There are also vitamin supplements and you can spend a lifetime reading and analyzing nutrition and putting together regimens. There are so many variables that it is difficult to say that what works for one person will work for others. Just the distance to the UVB bulb which depends on how often you change out your bulbs and where your perching branches are affects the effectiveness of your supplementation. Is the window by your chameleon cage open on the weekends? Well, you have just changed the parameters! The absolute best example of a long term study in nutritional supplements under controlled conditions has been by Ed Kammer of Kammerflage Kreations for his colony of Panther Chameleons. He is pretty free about sharing his results and regimen with the community so that is a great place to start your research. His nutritional regimen is the result of two decades of research and is the cornerstone of why his panthers show such strength and vigor. As his panthers are his livelihood you know this is more than just a hobby. And since any of the panthers he sells having a long and healthy life is paramount to the Kammerflage brand reputation you know he has no problem making sure his customers have the best information. Just realize that he can do what he does because he obsessively controls more parameters in his breeding colony than most people know exist. You will not get the exact same results, but it is the most solid start you can get at this time.
Okay, time to steer this wandering ship back on course!
8) Feeding: Feed the little guys once a day. If you can’t get over how cute it is to watch them all clamor over and shoot their tongues then don’t worry about feeding them twice a day just for entertainment value. In the first weeks it is a race to put on weight and get big and healthy. Dust your feeders with calcium and no D3 every other day and dust with Calcium and D3 once a week. A dusting schedule is approximate at best as you can’t control how much powder remains on the feeder when it is finally eaten. And by “dusting” I mean we lightly coat the feeders with powder. This is preferred over “caking” which is creating a snowball out of your cricket from the powder. That is going a bit overboard. You can dust your feeders by putting a pinch of powder in a bag or cup and then dumping the day’s feeders in. A light shake will coat the feeders with a thin layer and they are ready to be fed. You can present them in bowls to keep the feeders from escaping and hiding under pots and such or else you can sprinkle them on the leaves. Lightly misting the leaves helps small feeders stay on the leaves instead of sliding off to the floor. It also removes some of the powder so you just have to find the right balance of how much to mist. If you use bowls then have a number of feeding stations so there isn’t a bottleneck jam on the few perching spots near the food. If you feed them in a group then make sure there are always some feeders in the bowl. Every group will have the aggressive individuals that will run over to the food and snap up all they want and then there will be the more passive individuals that get their food once the Type A personalities are done. By making sure there is always a few feeders in the bowl you don’t have to worry about the aggressive ones eating everything and the passive ones going hungry. Even if the aggressive ones are eating just to show they are the alpha ones there is only so much they can fit in their stomach and eventually they will back off and let the others eat. Multiple feeding stations helps with this situation as well. This is where individual raising shines. If they are individually raised then you can monitor each chameleon’s food intake and they do not have to worry about competition. But if this is a first surprise litter of babies individual raising may be a bit out of reach. So we’ll work around that as best as possible! Although, if your surprise came from a small species such as a sternfeldi (commonly mislabeled “rudis”) then you may have only seven babies and maybe you could pull it off without too much trouble.
The purpose of this podcast episode is to get you through the first couple days and set for the first couple weeks. Once you get the situation stabilized you need to dive into your online chameleon community whether it be your favorite Facebook page or the forums at chameleonforums.com and get yourself in touch with some people that can help you through the first three months. If you do not have those community connections already then check the show notes for a link to the Chameleon Forums where you will find a number of knowledgeable chameleon people that can help you in more detail with your particular challenges. Just make sure you have the babies out of the bathtub before you go online, okay?
Once the dust settles, you will need to put together a plan for what you will do with the babies when they get older. We generally recognize three months as the time where they are ready to go to new homes. Unfortunately, the competition and dominance contests in some clutches of babies can get so bad that there will be nipped tails and bite and claw scars before the three month mark. And for most groups of babies any time after the three month mark you are more and more asking for trouble. Chameleons generally do not get along so make sure you have a plan as to where those babies are going before you come home and find them mangling each other. This is the usual next panic milestone for new breeders. The first standard panic is being surprised by babies and figuring out how to house them. The second is the challenge of finding appropriate food items and the third is when the babies overtly turn on each other. The battles were waged long before this, but beginning breeders don’t always pick up on the signs. It is only when it spills into overt physical damage that it is noticed as a “sudden change of events”. You have already weathered the first two panics. Have a plan and implement it before the third happens to you. If you start now you have time to make contacts in the chameleon community, get plugged into what is going on, and make a plan that works for your particular situation.