How to Care For a Jackson’s Chameleon
When we approach setting up an environment for a chameleon we need to look to their natural environment. Our challenge and mission is to replicate what they have been designed for.
Jackson’s Chameleons are higher altitude, forest edge chameleons. This means that they experience mild warm days and cool nights. They will sleep in the protection of leafy areas and, when the sun comes out, they will bask to warm up from the cool night. When they are done basking they will retreat back into the leafy protection. In the evening they may come back out to hunt. You will want to construct your cage so that you can create this forest edge.
The proper cage for a Jackson’s Chameleon
The most common cage sufficient for a Jackson’s Chameleon is the standard 48” tall cage with a 24” x 24” footprint. Though this could be considered the minimum for both male and female Jackson’s Chameleons, even this seems to be too small for the adult males that seem to desire to have a larger territory. Width is more important than height so if a wider cage is available that would be more desirable. The bigger the cage the better. If you are handy with building materials, consider constructing your own cage larger than what is commercially available. Jackson’s Chameleons experience humid nights, but dry days. Therefore, screen side cages are often selected to house Jackson’s Chameleons. This means that supplemental humidity may be beneficial during the night, but, unless your house is so dry that it is uncomfortable for you, a screen cage should give acceptable day time humidity. If you are using a solid side cage such as a glass vivarium then you will have an easy time with the night humidity, but during the day you will need to ensure the cage dries out. Warm and muggy conditions or constantly wet surfaces lead to infections due to compromised immune systems and sores on the feet.
Indoors vs Outdoors: If you live in an area that has parts of the year with temperature swings from the 80s on the high end and 50s on the low end then you should absolutely consider keeping your Jackson’s Chameleons outdoors for that period of time. Parts of California and Florida are so perfect for Jackson’s Chameleons that there continue to be rumors of feral populations of the Yellow-crested species (T. j. xantholophus). In fact, for keepers in Southern California, a large, heavily planted outdoor enclosure is all that is needed and the Jackson’s Chameleons will live and thrive outdoors all year for their entire long life. If your chameleon is acclimated to the outdoors and has sufficient cover, temperatures at night down to the 40s are easily survivable. This is especially easy if the next day is clear and sunny. Your chameleon will warm up and go about its life. If you are experiencing cold wet days then temperatures down to the 40s at night will slowly take a toll on the immune system. For optimal health they must be able to dry out and warm up during the day.
The biggest killer will actually be daytime temperatures above 90º F. The 80s will see them retreating deep into the shade. You will be able to extend their tolerance of temperature swings by having a soil bottom. Ideally, you just build a cage on the ground! The soil bottom will act as a heat sink and provide a much better top to bottom gradient of both heat and humidity.
The natural sunlight, air circulation, and humidity swings with outdoor keeping benefit Jackson’s Chameleons in a noticeable way and is encouraged if at all possible. Though outdoor keeping does come with challenges of its own. This podcast episode goes deep into outdoor keeping and is a recommended listen.
Inside set-up. Inside the cage, your “forest edge” is created by having two distinct regions – a basking area and a hiding area. In a 48” tall cage these can be two zone “layers” stacked vertically. In a wide cage these can be zones next to each other horizontally. The key is that the basking zone is open and airy. It should have great ventilation and many basking branches. This is the area where the chameleon may bask at various distances from the heat & UVB bulbs.
The hiding zone is an area created by dense plants. Your chameleons should be easily observed in the basking zone, but when your chameleon retreats into the hiding zone you should not be able to see it. This allows your chameleon the exposure gradient which is a psychological need. But more than psychological, you are also giving the chameleon an area protected from the heat lamp and UVB lamp. This is not optional. Many cage examples you will see do not have a thick plant area. These cages do not have the exposure gradient effectively executed. I encourage you to take it a step better than the norm. If you can see your chameleon at all places in the cage you do not have sufficient cover.
Lighting your Jackson’s Chameleon
Jackson’s Chameleons will appreciate a bright cage. One to three T5 high output 6500k bulbs do the job nicely. If your cage looks like a dark cave then you need to revamp your lighting. Unfortunately, kits sold with dome lights are done so to attract bargain hunters that would balk if they had to consider the price of effective lighting. Your choice is to either do it right up front or do it right after your chameleon has decreased in health. Get yourself linear fluorescent lights or better. Your basking layer should be filled with light like a forest edge would be during daytime.
A special UVB bulb is necessary. And here is where it is critical you understand the D3/calcium cycle. If you do not have the time then the simple answer is to buy a cage of at least the standard 48’ tall variety, get a quad 24” T5 HO fixture with a 12% UVB bulb and three 6500k daylight bulbs. If you want to do other than this then understand why what you want to get will work. You can make a wide variety of options work. You can even make those horribly weak compact fluorescent bulbs that come with kits work if you understand the tools. But this takes research. Get the light I specified above or do the research. I encourage you to do the research even if you are going to get the quad T5 fixture. That knowledge will serve you very well! I, and a number of experts, have worked very hard to get that information to you and we would be ecstatic if you took advantage of it. A good target UV index is 6. There is currently work being done to explore the positive effects of a higher UV Index for T. jacksonii merumontanus and this husbandry guide will be updated as more information becomes available. The higher the altitude the less the UVB is dissipated due to the atmosphere and, thus, the higher the UV index. T. jacksonii merumontanus comes from a higher altitude of 7500 feet above sea level (2300 m) and may have built up natural defenses against the high UVB levels. This would mean that it would take high UVB levels to get through the defenses and produce vitamin D3. This is an idea being tested.
Jackson’s Chameleons are used to cool nights and take advantage of the morning sun to warm themselves up to full working level. To replicate this we include a heat lamp in our husbandry to give our chameleon the warm-up option. Target a temperature of about 85 F at the basking spot. If you do not have a way of measuring temperature, then place your hand under the light a couple inches above the basking branch. This is where the chameleons will feel the heat. It should feel comfortably warm, but not uncomfortable to your hand. The most effective heat bulb option is a standard incandescent light bulb in a dome fixture. A 60W equivalent is usually sufficient. To direct the heat, put the bulb in a reflector dome. Ensure that the reflector dome is rated for the same wattage as you intend to use for safety sake. Heat lamps do not need to be left on for the entire day. Take your cues from the behavior of your chameleon. The ideal behavior is that your chameleon crawls up to bask, basks for 15 to 45 minutes, and then retreats away out of the heat. With this can be sure you have the right balance between ambient temperature and basking time. You can then turn the basking bulb off.
Note on colored lights. Colored lights are commonly sold at pet stores as nightlights. Some of them may even feature the picture of a chameleon on them. Using these at night will only disturb your chameleon. If you house is 40ºF or above during the night inside then there is no need for supplemental heat during the day. Chameleons can see the red and blue light so these will disturb their sleep. Do not use any light at night.
Hydrating your Jackson’s Chameleon
Chameleons get hydrated by licking water droplets off leaves. This can be accomplished by drippers and/or misting systems. Their normal hydration cycle is to wake up in the morning and lick dew off the leaves. The dew comes from high nighttime humidity where fog banks roll in. The dew point is reached and water condenses on the surfaces of the leaves. Jackson’s Chameleons survive in the wild without rain and water by this dew and breathing in the humid night air which maintains their hydration. A well hydrated chameleon will not aggressively drink. If your chameleon drinks a great deal every morning then consider adding a fogger or humidifier during the night hours.
An automatic mister is one of the best investments you can make in your chameleon husbandry. This is what will maintain a healthy hydration regardless of if you remember or not. And if you go away for a couple days, your chameleon will be fine as long as it is hydrated. A mister has the advantage that it can create a layer of mist on the surfaces in the cage just like the dew. It can also replicate a rain shower. The caution is that the cage needs to dry out during the day. Avoid misting several times a day to where the cage remains wet. The muggy air and constantly wet surfaces can encourage bacterial or fungal blooms. Constantly wet branches create sores on chameleon feet which provide a quick entry for invading bacteria. You can effectively use misters with drippers by misting during the night time – especially just before the lights come on and then starting the dripper in the morning. In this manner their environment is moist when it would be in nature and dry during the day. But even with the dry day, the dripper provides hydration.
If you want to have a hydration cycle which depends only on the mister then mist a minute of two in the morning before the lights switch on and then later in the afternoon after the heat lamp has turned off. I also do a couple minute misting session an hour or so after the lights go out just to set the stage for the humid night.
If you incorporate a fogger then start the fogging sometime around or before midnight and let it run until just before the lights come on in the morning.
A sample hydration schedule is as follows
Midnight: fogger turns on
5:58AM: mister runs for two minutes
6AM; both mister and fogger turn off
6:15AM lights start coming on.
7AM: dripper starts dripping until basin is empty
6PM: lights go off and you allow your natural sunset to slowly bring night to your chameleon
9PM: mister goes off for two minutes just to set the stage for the humid night
A comprehensive description of a chameleon’s 24 hour daily cycle can be listened to below:
Supplementation: Getting the right nutrition into your Jackson’s Chameleon
Calcium is important for chameleon nutrition. Vitamin D3 is best derived from UVB, but can come from the diet if your UVB is not sufficient. Please reference these materials to determine a supplementation schedule. Jackson’s Chameleons are known to get edema (excess fluid around the neck). This has often gone away after reducing the supplementation schedule, but we actually do not know what is really going on. More testing is required.
Consult with the care guide for specifics on your subspecies. Basics to keep in mind are
- Temperatures in the mid-70s during the day are ideal. Temperatures over 80 starts stressing your Jackson’s Chameleon. They will not suddenly drop dead, but the higher it goes over 80ºF the more measures you will have to put in place to give your chameleon a comfortable place to be.
- Low nighttime temperatures are encouraged. 60s or 50s are fine.
- Do NOT use night lights
- Do NOT keep more than one Jackson’s Chameleons over three months of age in the same cage.
Plants and branches
A dense plant layer is necessary for your chameleon’s sense of wellbeing. If you are just starting off and want the easiest plant to keep alive please collect some pothos (Epiprenerum aereum). These are the hardiest plants in our chameleon conditions and they provide great leaf cover. Live plants are preferred for their ability to create a humidity microclimate.
Branches can be from trees in your area that do not have pesticides. You’ll want to create horizontal perching surfaces. Get diameters that allows the chameleon’s feet to almost wrap around. Thicker and thinner is good to give the feet a variety of diameters to grasp.
Pothos, or, more accurately, Epipremnum aureum, comes in a variety of forms, is easy to care for, and provides great cover and drinking surfaces. This is a “Golden” leaf variety and a variegated variety.
Co-habitation: Keeping Jackson’s Chameleons in the same cage
Jackson’s Chameleons have a subtle personality and this has led many people to believe that they can be kept together. This is incorrect and leads to a slow downward spiral in health. Allow me to clear up any misconceptions about keeping Jackson’s Chameleons together. DO NOT HOUSE JACKSON’S CHAMELEONS TOGETHER IN THE SAME CAGE. I will happily repeat it. It is critical that you know this will lead to the eventual decline and death of one of your Jackson’s Chameleons. It is also important that you know it is a subtle downward spiral so many sellers and even breeders of chameleons do not realize it is happening. They will say they have been doing it and all the people who tell you not to just don’t know what we are talking about. Jackson’s Chameleons will live and reproduce under these conditions, but at least one will slowly decline. As someone who has personally helped keeper after keeper after keeper wondering why one of their chameleons is just not doing as well – co-habitation is the reason. The podcast episode below goes into more detail as to what the signs of stress are and discusses co-habitation. If you ignore this warning and do it anyways you can join the myriad of keepers who say ‘they were doing so well for so long and then one died. Must be ———-. Fill in the blank with some excuse like bad genetics, bad feeder insect, or random sunspot activity. Anything other than taking responsibility for the bad decision to co-habitate. Yes, I am being rude. There is no reason to co-habitate other than selfish human desires for more chameleons in less space. This desire kills chameleons. Please do not give into it!
If you would like to read more about co-habitation please reference this article: Keeping Jackson’s Chameleons Together
To learn the subtle language of chameleons so you can identify the signs of stress listen in to this podcast episode:
Conclusion: Observation is the greatest tool in Jackson’s Chameleon captive husbandry!
The greatest tool in husbandry of any chameleon is observation. Each chameleon is an individual and each environment is slightly different. You can read care information, but it is certain that there will be certain aspects that you will have to change to make it work in your situation. Watch your chameleon. They will communicate through their behavior what needs to change. And in this there is not a cookbook recipe. It will need to be your perceptiveness and detective work to determine what is keeping your chameleon from being happy in the environment you have provided. Remember, a happy Jackson’s Chameleon emerges from the bushes in the morning to warm up, retreats back to a comfortable place to stay during the day and then hides deep in the leaves to sleep. Your happy chameleon will have some sort of similar schedule. The tell tale sign that your chameleon is not happy is constant climbing on the screen or trying to get out of its protective cage. I know we humans like to interpret wanting to come out of their cage as a sign that they love us and want to be with us. This is not what a chameleon is. A properly decorated cage is a safe haven and security for your chameleon. If your chameleon wants to get out of their cage then it is time to figure out is wrong. Keep in mind that you can do everything we say and your chameleon may still be climbing the sides. This is still a sign they are not content, but this could be because they have this need to roam. Placing thicker netting or a network of branches against the sides may, at least, give them something more substantial to crawl on.
Below are some reference care sheets for the different forms of Jackson’s Chameleons. They are very similar, but you’ll want to pay special attention to the care sheet on T. j. merumonantus if you have pervious Jackson’s Chameleon experience. They are from a bit higher elevation which will affect your temperatures and UV Index.