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Mini Dinosaurs

Jackson’s chameleon may bear a resemblance to triceratops, but are considerably more colorful.

By Linda Davison

 During the early 1960s, the little triceratops-looking Jackson’s chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus) was exported out of Kenya, Africa, and into the pet trade. It is rumored that in the 1970s,  an Oahu pet shop owner imported several shipments. When one shipment did not appear healthy, the owner allegedly released them into his backyard in Kaneohe, Oahu, thinking he could recollect them once they were healthy. This quickly led to populations expanding throughout Oahu and other islands. In 1981, exportation from Kenya, Africa, was banned. However, exports did still come from the Hawaiian Islands.


There are three types of Jackson’s chameleons found in Africa.

1.       Jackson’s Chameleons are the only common name I have heard pertaining to both larger species Chamaeleo jacksonii jacksonii, measuring approximately 4 inches from snout to vent, is typically found in the Nairobi area of Kenya at 5,000 to 8,000 feet. I personally have never seen this type of Jackson’s chameleon in captivity.

2.      Dwarf Jackson’s chameleon) Chamaeleo jacksonii merumontana, measuring around 3 inches from snout to vent, is only located in the Mount Meru region of Tanzania. Per CITIES, 500 of these chameleons are allowed to be exported into the pet trade from the wild annually, as well as 143 farm-raised or captive-bred from Tanzania. This species has the same coloration as the larger Jackson’s chameleon, except the males have a bright-yellow head with much longer horns that are more brittle in comparison to the larger species. My experience with this type of Jackson’s chameleon is limited. This species requires a cooler environment than I am able to provide.

3.     The yellow-crested Jackson’s chameleon (C. j. xantholophus), measuring approximately 5 inches  from snout to vent, is located in the Mount Kenya region of Kenya at 6,000 to 8,000 feet. This species is the most common in the pet trade today and the one I have the most experience with.

My personal chameleon fever was solidified due to my experience with the Jackson’s chameleons. In 1992 my second chameleon purchase, a pair of Jackson’s chameleons were so happy in their new environment they started to breed. Our female was so huge she looked like a bag of marbles with legs. I thought for sure she would lay her eggs at any moment. Not much information was available at the pet store and I didn’t have internet then to go to for information. One morning I woke around 6:00am went to turn on the chameleon’s lights, and noticed about 15 things I thought might be really large crickets in the vivarium. In my drowsy state, It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. Surprise! These were babies not crickets. I witnessed the female sticking an egg sack to the branch and the baby emerging, falling to the ground, and race up the branches. Then she hung by her front limbs and dropped an egg sack over the side, which plummeted to the ground about 4 feet below. I thought the poor little baby was dead. Suddenly this little creature wiggled out of the sack, perfectly fine. This was so fascinating and alien, I instantly caught an incurable case of chameleon fever that to this day, no other species of reptiles or amphibians has been able to match.

By 1995 my new business, Sticky Tongue Farms had evolved. We were importing and deparasitizing, as well as breeding many species of chameleons from around the world. The ban on owning the chameleons in Hawaii had recently been lifted by State Department of  Agriculture, who until that point thought the nonindigenous  species to be a threat to the native flora and fauna. Our importers from Hawaii helped us organize and host the Jackson Fest on the big island of Hawaii in Kailua Kona. Some people from the Hawaiian community were misinformed as to what the chameleons ate and how they lived. The Jackson Fest attracted 1000's of people. Sticky Tongue Farms helped educate the locals on basic care and feeding, while learning from the crowd their personal experiences, including where the chameleons were located in their neighborhoods. We were granted access to visit several feral populations on the island. The Jackson’s chameleons seemed to adapt well to many different environments. Temperature and humidity variables were unlike their original habitat in Africa. From back yards to Macadamia nut orchards, these chameleons were in arid areas as well as cooler rainforest areas. I experienced this degree of fluctuation as well in our green house back on the mainland. Our temperatures often rose above 100 degrees in the summer, and below 40 degrees in the winter months. Our breeding stock showed no apparent adverse effects to this climate Fluctuation. I kept the humidity between 70- 100 percent, and provided shade in the summer months, while offering full sun for basking in the winter months.

Over the 2 weeks we spent studying the Jackson’s chameleons on the Big Island I learned another interesting lesson about collecting chameleons. The Jackson’s chameleons were easier to collect at night especially under the full moon that luckily for me happened to be on this occasion. The chameleons for some strange reason came to the end of the branches to sleep. My Hawaiian friends said they were moon basking. It was truly amazing to see the chameleons of all different sizes hanging on the tips of the trees swaying gently in the breeze.  When the flashlight shone on them, they glowed a luminescent light green. This made collection very easy. A word of caution, if you find yourself in Hawaii and want to look for chameleons, do so will permission of the landowners. On one occasion we thought we had authorization to visit a grove at night. After gunshots rang out, we communicated to the caretaker that the owner had in fact given us permission to be there. The situation was actually caused by a miscommunication with the caretaker. He did not make it to the Jackson Fest earlier in the week and wanted a t-shirt like his friends received for helping at the event. Luckily the shirts were in the rental car and all was easily resolved.

Once back to the mainland when subsequent escapees were not found in the daytime we employed this method. A trip through the neighborhood, and a polite knock on the neighbors’ door requesting backyard access has resulted in many found escapees of several different chameleon species.

Chameleon Cage requirements

As with all chameleon species, I recommend housing your chameleons separately in screen cages measuring at least 3 feet tall, 2 feet long and 2 feet wide. Neonates can be housed singly or in groups for a month and then separated to smaller groups as long as aggression or competition for food is not an issue. If an adult chameleon sees its own reflection or another chameleon in the room, they could perceive this as a threat. Without the ability to escape, they will become stressed. Constant stress of this nature can be detrimental to any chameleon. Housing animals separately is one way to reduce the stress of captivity. Removing the chameleon for watering, cage maintenance or holding are a short-term, occasional stressors that are not as harmful as improper husbandry.


Enclosures should include a large tree with ample climbing and hiding spaces so that the chameleon can conceal itself and feel secure. I use Ficus benjamina trees with sticks of various sizes. Any plants or bushes that are non-toxic if eaten are suitable as well. Many chameleons have been housed with plastic plants with no apparent problems. However, some may occasionally chew on or accidentally ingest leaves and need to be monitored. I prefer paper towels as a ground cover or nothing at all. Clean the chameleon’s enclosure at least three times per week. Once a month remove the chameleon and plant to give the enclosure a thorough cleaning using a reptile-safe disinfectant.



Rainfall averages 30 to 60 inches per year in Kenya and Tanzania. Daily moisture is still available from high humidity even though no measurable rainfall may be present. The humidity droplets are all the chameleons have for a water source at times.


Keeping a Jackson's chameleon fully hydrated is important. If the chameleon is not properly hydrated when shedding, a skin tourniquet may form on toes and joints. This can result in loss of the digit or foot. Take note if your chameleon repeatedly rubs its eyes on branches. This could be the first stage of an eye infection or simply trying to clean dirt out of it. Proper hydration again plays an important roll here. When the chameleon is in a rainstorm shower, it has an opportunity to clean its eyes. If the eyes do become infected, contact your veterinarian for antibiotics.

 Gently mist the chameleon’s entire tree and body with water a minimum of twice daily. Use a cool mist ultrasonic humidifier if the humidity drops lower than 50 percent. Even if you supply a humidifier, your chameleons will benefit from being placed in a “rainstorm” in your shower once a week. Position the chameleon on a plant or clothes-drying rack under a light rain or mist for a half-hour minimum weekly. To avoid a sudden shock to your chameleon, allow them to walk onto the plant or clothes-drying rack on the side devoid of rain fall.

 When I studied Jackson’s chameleons in Hawaii it rained daily. If the rain was slow to start, the chameleons seemed undisturbed, but if the rainfall came on fast, quite a few chameleons jumped off their branches with a thud onto the ground and scampered for cover. This sudden shock can be stressful and result in injury to a captive chameleon.  Be aware of how this little creature is going to react to what you are doing to them.


The Right Ambiance

I thought this information would be helpful to the reader here to understand how adaptable these chameleons can be since I am asking them to put their animals outside as much as possible.

The Jackson’s chameleons in Hawaii seemed to adapt well to many different environments. Temperature and humidity variables were unlike their original habitat in Africa. From back yards to Macadamia nut orchards, these chameleons were in arid areas as well as cooler rainforest areas.  I experienced a degree of fluctuation as well in our green house back on the mainland. Our temperatures often rose above 100 degrees in the summer, and below 40 degrees in the winter months. Our breeding stock showed no apparent adverse effects to this climate Fluctuation. I kept the humidity between 70- 100 percent, and provided shade in the summer months, while offering full sun for basking in the winter months.

   Ambient daytime temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit with night temperatures around 60 degrees are acceptable for most captive Jackson’s chameleons. Pushing the parameter of temperature may be fine in a well-established pet. Close observation is always needed when fluctuation of temperature is past the recommended range in captivity.

   Exposure to natural sunlight cannot be over stated, especially in a live-bearing species. The survival rate of my adult and new-born chameleons rose dramatically when I started offering more direct, unfiltered sunlight. Never leave your chameleon unattended if they are outside and not in an enclosure.

  On top of the indoor enclosure I place a full-spectrum UVB tube as well as a hotspot lamp. Remember that no light bulb will give the same long-term benefits as natural sunlight. Take care that the chameleon doesn’t come in direct contact with any artificial heat source. A branch 3 to 4 inches from the basking site ensures the chameleon won’t get burned. Make sure the chameleons cannot get close to any lighting if hanging on the screen.


Diet and Supplementation

Captive chameleons will eat crickets, flies, cockroaches and snails. Offer an average of five to seven size-appropriate insects to your sub-adult to adult chameleons per feeding. Allow neonates and juveniles free access to food for up to 3-6 months . Rule of thumb is to keep insects smaller in length than the gap between the chameleons eyes  I prefer free-range feeding, which allows the chameleon to hunt for its food and exercise. However, a plastic feeding dish placed under a branch for easy access is fine. The adult chameleon may eat every other day at times or even go off food for a longer period in the cooler months. Fully hydrating chameleons is essential at these times.

 Gut loading feeder insects is the best way to get usable vitamins to your chameleons.

Jackson’s chameleons are especially sensitive to excess amounts of synthetic vitamin A. When vitamins are used improperly, it may cause either an inferior amount of vitamins to your chameleons or vitamin toxicity, which can lead to gout or edema and even become fatal.

 Dusting with dry vitamins is questionable, because beta carotene and other essential ingredients do not work well in a dust form. It is better to gut load these vitamins into the insect and then feed them to the chameleon? The beta carotene beadlet, in particular are so large due to the fat lipid which protects the viability of the  beta carotene (the vitamin A source) it is far too large to stick to any feeder prey item. Beta-carotene builds immunity and is a powerful antioxidant that improves immune function and promotes mucous membrane health. This helps reduce upper respiratory infections chameleons are prone to. In fact, dietary intake of beta carotene can enhance cell-mediated immune responses.


This type of gut loading ensures the insects are properly vitamin rich, and free of any toxins which may be used to grow the insects. Insects are grown often on items such as chicken mass, which when fed to crickets can have toxic levels of vitamin A for chameleons needing to be purged through the gutloading process, and replaced with healthy types and amounts of vitamins which the chameleon can use . I gut load my feeder insects with Sticky Tongue Farms Vit-All to provide vitamins and amino acids, and then I dust prey with Sticky Tongue Farms Miner-All to provide calcium and trace elements. I use the indoor formula for chameleons kept indoors and the outdoor formula for chameleons exposed to natural unblocked sunshine for more than 12 hours throughout the week.

Jackson’s chameleons are one of the most readily available chameleons in the market place today. They can easily be found in pet stores, and at expos. I prefer to be able to see a chameleon before purchase for a health check. However, Internet sales can be a safe and rewarding experience with a reputable dealer. These fascinating gentle mini dinosaurs are a good choice for any level of hobbyist.  Once a healthy chameleon is purchased, guidelines for housing and husbandry are followed, the biggest challenge any keeper will encounter is exposing this chameleon to unfiltered sunshine.  I cannot stress enough the importance of natural sunshine, especially for a live bearing species.  The joy and entertainment these animals can bring is ultimately worth the effort and research for setting them up properly from the beginning of your relationship.

In 1992 my second chameleon purchase, a pair of Jackson’s chameleons were so happy in their new environment they started to breed. One morning I witnessed the female sticking an egg sack to the branch and the baby emerging, falling to the ground, and race up the branches. Hanging by her front limbs, she then dropped an egg sack over the side, plummeting 4 feet below. The little creature wiggled out of the sack unharmed. This was so fascinating and alien I instantly caught an incurable case of chameleon fever. Which to this day, no other species of reptiles or amphibians I have owned or breed has been able to match.

 Breeding Jackson’s

When your chameleons come of age, approximately nine months to one year old, place the female into the male’s enclosure for breeding. Allow the male to breed for 3-5 days. Watch for signs of disinterest, or aggression, such as the female rocking back and forth when approached by the male, hissing or biting. If this occurs, separate the animals for a week and try again.

 All Jackson's chameleons are ovoviviparous, a live-bearing species that produces approximately 20 to 30 offspring per brood. The Mount Meru Jackson’s usually produce less than 20 per brood. The neonates are actually incubated in a soft-shell membrane inside the mother as opposed to being deposited in the ground in a harder shell.


Gestation is typically between seven and nine months for the first brood. After which time, if proper breeding has occurred, another brood will be born every three months thereafter.  I always re introduce males to make sure the sperm count is enough to fertilize the new brood she is incubating. Upon necropsy of expired females, three different generations have been found growing simultaneously inside a female. The females will produce only yolks if the stored sperm count goes down and so does the number of fertile eggs if sperm count is not high enough to fertilize all the developing eggs. For this reason, reintroduction to the male two weeks after giving birth is recommended if the female is in good health.


Feeding Hatchlings

Neonates often start eating very soon after birth.  Feeding may occur in hours or days from birth. Lightly misting with luke warm water will keep the neonates from becoming dehydrated and stimulate their eating.) Be observant during gestation and have your plan for feeding prearranged. Live births can be hard to time. Being observant of the female as she grows larger and starts to look like a marble bag, or slows down on the eating, may be indications that she is ready to give birth.


One of the most common mistakes is feeding only one type of insect to your reptiles. In my opinion, any herper keeping insectivores needs to be an amateur entomologist to keep healthy long-term animals. Here are just a few suggestions that have worked well for me at Sticky Tongue Farms. Please be advised that these versions of insect rearing are a brief description that has worked well for a small number of insects. Further information on large colonies of a given insect may be available from the supplier.


Zoophobia Meal Worms

Place 2 to 3 inches of oat bran/wheat germ mix in the bottom of the enclosure. Gut load the insects with fresh fruit, vegetables and the bran mixture. To pupate worms into beetles, put them into deli cups with the bran mix, and place them in a dark cupboard. They will pupate into beetles in two to three weeks. House the beetles in an aquarium with damp soil. These insects will cannibalize each other if not properly feed. When you see the worms hatching out, remove them to a separate container. When ready to feed to your chameleons, remove adult worms to a container that has no substrate. Place the recommended amount of Vit-All in the container. Follow directions for use on the can. After properly gut loaded, dust with Miner-All as directed.  Vit-all can be used dry as a substrate or fed wet as a supplement.


House Flies

We have had very good luck with Jackson's chameleons on a fly diet. Acquire the pupae from a biological supply house or try our recipe. Adults are egged using a small cup with waded tissue wetted with water and evaporated milk. Tissues can be rinsed and reused, as a pheromone is released by the female flies when they deposit ova. The thick brown industrial or school type towel is best for repeated use. To acquire wild-caught flies, simply place the wetted tissues with the milk and water mixture in the yard. In a few days, thread like worms will be visible on the damp towel.


In a bag combine 4 quarts of flaky red wheat bran, 2 cups rehydrated alfalfa pellets, 2 pints dry milk and 2 teaspoons active dry yeast. Mix and add 3 quarts of water and knead the mixture in a plastic bag until it resembles bread dough. Pack loosely into a Rubbermaid dishpan and add fly eggs to the surface by rinsing the towel into the dishpan. Cover the pan with cheesecloth or fine screening.

 On approximately the fourth day 1 to 1 1/2 quarts of water should be added to mix. The pan is then placed in a large sweater box with a screened lid. Dry bran is poured around the outer margin of the box to dry the emergent larvae and encourage pupation. If the majority of the larvae have not been driven out in a few hours, add an additional half to 1 quart of water. Allow larvae to pupate in this mixture. Pupae are sifted from the bran and stored in deli cups. Adults will emerge in two to four days thereafter, depending upon the temperature. Pupae can be stored in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.

 Feed adults a mixture of dried milk and sugar in a container of water with waded paper towels to prevent drowning. Adult flies can be egged one week after emergence and will produce eggs for two to three weeks. Each pan should produce 10,000 to 15,000 flies. The recipe can be tailored for demand. Smaller pans may develop more slowly due to decreased thermal output generated by the larvae. To feed out the flies upon hatching, place flies in a small receptacle containing Vit-All for gut loading. The newly hatched flies will not be capable of flight right away. After properly gut loaded, Miner-All is then added to the container and shaken until the insects are evenly coated. The Miner-All will weigh down the newly hatched flies and make it easier to place them into the cage for feeding.


Fruit Flies For Neonates

This food item is easily purchased from a supplier or started on your own in warm weather for newborn chameleons. Place a bowl of fruit in the enclosure, sprinkle with yeast and keeping the culture damp. Add fresh fruit weekly for months of production.  I occasionally add some Vit-All as well.


 Basic Chameleon Buying Guide

When purchasing a new chameleon, go through this checklist to make your purchase and assess your new captive’s health.

1. Check your chameleon for full, alert eyes that are free from matter and injury.

2. Place your hand under the chameleon and lift gently. Allow the chameleon to walk onto your hand to check its grip. Never yank or pull the animal from a branch, even a small tug can result in damage to the joints. If your chameleon’s digits or joints are swollen, it could be an infection or an injury. Seek qualified veterinary treatment right away.

3. If able, try to see if the chameleon will eat or drink. No visible drool or mouth injury should be present when looking inside the mouth.

4. Listen for popping or wheezing when the chameleon breathes. This may be an indication of an upper respiratory disease.

5. Always check the skin for bruising, cuts, ticks or mites.

6. Obtain a fecal check for parasites as soon as you acquire your chameleon. Even the Hawaiian species can contract parasites. All insectivores in stressful conditions have the potential for a spike in parasite production