Husbandry Techniques for Rieppeleon brevicaudatus (Bearded Pygmy Chameleon)
Brevicaudatus are fascinating little chameleons that make an excellent addition to any keeper’s collection and a good choice for a first time/inexpensive breeding project. Despite their lack in size, colors and their short tails; they truly make up for that with their personalities and behavior.
Due to their small size (around 3″), their enclosures usually take up much less space then the typical setup for a true chameleon. So if space is a consideration then these little chameleons may fit the bill.
There are several different species of African pygmy/leaf chameleons but only a few are available in today’s pet trade. The two species that are most commonly found are R. temporalis and R. brevicaudatus. Both species make a good “first time” choice in respect to false chameleons, but neither should be a first chameleon for the hobbyist.
Brevicaudatus make a better choice of the two since they seem to be more active and much more prolific then the temporalis. They also willingly eat a wider variety of common feeders. So if you are interested in a somewhat active species of leaf chameleon and want to start a breeding project, then brevicaudatus makes a good choice.
Brevicaudatus inhabit small areas around the Eastern Usambara and Uluguru mountains in northeastern Tanzania. They can be found in the remnants of evergreen forests occupying lower shrubs where little light makes it through the forest canopy.
To accommodate the environmental needs of these chameleons, it’s common to use a heavily planted aquarium with a screen top. Please refer the “Constructing a Stump-Tailed Chameleon Habitat” article for ideas on building an enclosure.
Hydration and Humidity
To meet the hydration and humidity requirements for these chameleons, a misting twice a day is recommended. Some have suggested that one heavy misting a day is sufficient, but I feel it’s important to at least offer a couple opportunities each day to drink and clean their eyes. If it’s a hot and/or dry day, then that misting in the evening (or a third one in the afternoon) becomes very beneficial and sometimes necessary. I’ve also read that 2 heavy mistings are required each day, but what bothers me about that is the “heavy” part of it. The amount of water to offer is never that consistent and is usually determined by the current weather among other things.
The first misting happens around 15-20 minutes after the lights go on; this gives them a chance to wake up first. This is purely just something I do; I would think it to be perfectly fine to wait an hour (this happens a lot on the weekends) or to mist right after the lights come on. The evening misting gets finished at least one hour prior to the lights going off. The water will obviously cool them down a bit so I give them an hour to warm back up before the lights go out. This is also a common practice that I follow with my true chameleons.
The evening mist is also typically lighter then the morning one (but not always – again weather here) since the humidity will naturally go up on it’s own at night. So a lighter misting in the evening is recommended. If you still see moisture on the foliage in the morning then you may need to tone down the evening misting a bit.
Misting Tools / Techniques
The amount of water to offer at each misting is a tricky thing to learn and quite dynamic – meaning that it’s directly correlated to the weather/home environment; it’s also common for new keepers to over water an enclosure relatively quickly. One way to prevent over watering is to use the right tool. Pump action type garden sprayers put out too much water in a short time making it difficult not to over water, they are also harsh on the leaf chameleons as well (kind of like the equivalent of getting sprayed with a fire house I would think).
Trigger hand sprayers work much better but can become painful to use after a while. I have 3 cages and 8 tanks, there is no way I am going to use a hand sprayer twice a day to mist my chameleons. But if all you have is one enclosure (or just a few) then a small hand sprayer will work.
For a misting tool, I have settled on the Misty Mate Reptile Mister to mist all my chameleons. Its pump action, has a long narrow hose so that you can mist hard to reach areas of the enclosure, and the mist is very fine which works out quite well with the leaf chameleons. It also makes over watering difficult to do. On a side note, some of my fellow chameleon keepers mock the misty mate. But that’s because they don’t understand the misty mate. Anything similar should work well too (very fine mist / low water flow).
One of the downfalls of the reptile mister is the reservoir – about the size of soda can, so at least 4 or 5 refills is needed to mist my collection. If you are not happy with its size, check out the larger versions available at mistymate.com. If you peruse the site and notice the “Elite” series of misters, don’t bother with them. Pumping it up with slightly warm water turns it into a hand grenade. There seems to be a defect in the thread design allowing for the lid to explode off – so please don’t consider it, it’s dangerous – trust me.
I regularly heat the water with a microwave until it’s lukewarm before misting; I really think all my chameleons appreciate the warmer water. You obviously don’t want water too hot since it could harm the chameleons, but it will also shorten the life span of the reptile mister which will expand to the point of bursting at the seam with water too hot. Over pumping the reptile mister also shortens the life span of it (15 pumps a time at the most).
Temperature dictates how often I mist and humidity dictates for how long. The first thing I do is check the humidity/temp gauge in the room. If the humidity is high (around 60-65 or higher) then I will do a light misting, if it’s any lower then a heavier misting. I do occasionally utilize an air conditioner in the summer to keep the temps down, but since the AC dries the air out I will mist a bit heavier when using it.
When it comes to actual process of misting, I try and evenly mist the enclosure. I also try and not have areas that are overly wet or dry. I have read that some keepers keep one side of the enclosure a bit drier then the other side. The reasoning behind this may be for gravid females – basically offering choices to where they can lay their eggs. Not a bad idea and it’s always good to offer choices.
Brevicaudatus seem to tolerate brief direct misting pretty well. Considering they typically live in a more complex environment then our true chameleons (more specifically our captive environments) and the fact that they are somewhat terrestrial, they are more prone to getting debris caught in their eyes – mainly substrate. So direct misting to both eyes is recommended. This twice a day gives them ample opportunity to clean their eyes and we all know how important that is.
I find that brevicaudatus do a good job at keeping themselves hydrated. If the humidity is up to par they may not drink at each misting or each day for that matter (or they are being discreet about it). The majority of the time the chameleons will drink from objects such as sticks, polished stones, and leaves – at least more so then from their mouth area. Whenever I catch a chameleon drinking from a fixed object, I make a second pass (or third) to that leaf, rock, whatever with the mister until it gets its fill.
Tap water should work just fine for the chameleons, unless you have problems with your water. I do utilize a Brita water filter only because I get heavy deposits on the enclosure walls if I don’t.
The right amount of water
This is something you will need to find out for yourself – and it does take practice. Again, temperature and humidity in your area/home will help you determine the right amount.
The substrate should never be completely dry in all areas of the enclosure. Having patches of dry substrate is fine, but the substrate should never be completely dry just prior to the next misting. In general, the substrate should be constantly moist but not sopping wet with the occasional drier area. This will also help with any eggs that may have been deposited since the eggs need moisture to develop but substrate too wet will drown the eggs and prevent them from hatching. If areas of the tank look muddy, fungus is developing, or the foliage is still wet from the previous misting then you are most likely over watering.
If the tank becomes overly wet then move the chameleons in a backup tank or critter container then place a small personal fan right above the tank facing into the enclosure. Let it run for a day or until the enclosure has dried out enough. Sometimes tilling the substrate in wet areas will help dry things out as well. If you have springtails in the enclosure, then be sure that there are some damp areas where they can thrive.
If it has been dry that week weather wise, I may do a heavier misting on the weekend to get the moisture level back up in the enclosure. Usually I keep on top of this during the week but not always – so occasionally a heavier misting on the weekend is needed.
Try and avoid misting the walls of the enclosure too. It will help keep the glass clean and prevent water from dripping down creating excessively damp areas.
Expect to get things too wet at first and learn from it, offering just the right amount of water is definitely trial and error – just learn from your mistakes and pay attention to the weather. After time, you will be better in tune with the enclosure and learn to identify when you need to mist more or less on each day.
Of course there are going to be spikes and drops in the humidity – especially after misting, but on average the humidity should be around 70. I find that the larger the enclosure, the harder it is to keep the humidity up, so if you have problems sustaining humidity, then consider using a humidifier. Please refer to the “Humidifiers and Chameleon Enclosures” article for some ideas.
After the humidifier runs, there is usually enough condensation on leaves for the chameleons to get a quick drink. So if you are looking for a way to offer some water during the day while you are at work, etc. – then consider a humidifier.
Also consider purchasing a digital temp/humidity gauge for the enclosure that has a min/max feature. I find them to be more useful then the traditional gauges – and a bit more accurate.
In my opinion, I can’t see a mist system being a complete solution. Here is why…
- You will need special nozzles and the appropriate tubing to prevent excessive dripping after the mist cycle completes. Typical nozzles can drip for several seconds after the cycle creating very damp areas in the enclosure. I personally counted over 35 drops from the nozzle in my F. lateralis cage. If the tubing is flexible enough, it will expand from the pressure of the pump, so when the pump shuts off the tubing will contract and in turn force more drops out of the nozzle.
- There is no guarantee the chameleons are getting both eyes misted
- Chance of over watering
- Chance of not remembering to fill the reservoir which could be a real problem on a warm day and possibly ruin the pump if it runs dry.
- You miss the opportunity to inspect all the chameleons during the manual misting.
Also keep in mind that the special non-drip nozzles are expensive not to mention the pump and accessories. I’m sure someone out there could probably overcome some if not all of these issues, and like I said it’s just my opinion – I’m also quite sure there are keepers out there successfully using them with leaf chameleons. I really like to manually mist since it serves several purposes such as inspecting the chameleons/enclosure, maintaining proper moisture levels in all areas of the substrate, making sure plants are getting enough water, etc.
The ideal temps should be in the low to mid 70’s (F) with a 10 degree drop at night. Before getting an air conditioner my area had some uncommonly hot weather and the temps did reach 87F inside the enclosures for a few days. I noticed that the chameleons were able to tolerate this but drank more because of the heat. Their skin also became a bit blotchy with some dark areas that I had never seen before. These patterns were more apparent while they were sleeping. I can’t be sure that the higher temps attributed to this, but I have yet to see these patterns reemerge. I really can’t stress enough avoiding temps in the upper 80’s. I think if it got any warmer then 87F then I would have had some dead leaf chameleons.
So the odd hot day shouldn’t affect them too much as long as they are offered more water then usual in the form of an extra misting during the day. Really try and avoid temps warmer then 80F and try to be proactive and plan for these warmer days. Have an air conditioner ready, and remember that it will dry the air out – so you will need to compensate for that by misting a bit heavier and possibly more often.
I have also tried using “cold/freezer packs” placed on the top of the enclosures. To a certain extent these do drop the temps but at the same time the condensation can really make a mess and the ice cold drops of water are not well received by the chameleons.
Generally keepers do not offer a basking light since most home temperatures are sufficient. There are some exceptions to this though. I was unable to control the heat in my last apartment and occasionally temperatures did drop to the high 50’s at night. With these temps I would sometimes find chameleons on the screen tops directly under the fluorescent lights in the morning. My guess was that they were trying to warm up since I never really saw them on the screen tops unless it was a cold night.
I started to experiment with small basking domes and a 40w bulb positioned about 8-10 inches away from the tank (side mounted). The temps in that general area with the basking light were usually around the high 70’s – many times hitting 80F. From my observation the chameleons did seem to utilize the basking areas. I never felt it necessary to keep the heat lights on all day so they were put on timers and came on along with the fluorescent lights and off a few hours later.
I would also like to note that Brevicaudatus have been observed in the wild basking in patches of sunlight in the morning. This was stated in the Necas/Schmidt book “Stump-tailed Chameleons, Miniature Dragons of the Rainforest”.
In most cases I can’t see the need for a basking light and to be honest it can be very dangerous if you’re not careful. Never use anything higher then a 40w bulb and don’t use any of the “spot light” type bulbs – I just feel that they would be too intense. Also avoid using a basking light with small enclosures such as 10 gallon tanks. It would be very difficult to create a heat gradient with these smaller tanks, so there will be no cooler areas in tank for the chameleon(s) to retreat to. If you decide on a heat source, then implement it on a day where you can monitor the temps throughout the light cycle (don’t just set it and forget it).
Under Tank Heaters
I did initially incorporate these into some of the first few tanks but have found that they aren’t really necessary. With all the drainage layers in the tank, I can’t see these making a real noticeable difference in overall temps. Some brands are also expensive – especially the larger sized ones.
Air Conditioners / Fans
As mentioned earlier, an AC unit may be needed to keep the temps down. Avoid having the cool air blowing directly on the tank(s). Again, it will dry out the air so be sure to make up for that with extra misting.
Since day one I have utilized an oscillating fan in the far corner of the room where the enclosures are kept. I find that running it on the low setting is ideal and I do notice a very subtle breeze make it into the tanks. I really feel that air exchange is important and this is something that I wouldn’t feel comfortable without.
Location of the Enclosure
Avoid positioning the enclosure near drafty windows and never allow direct sunlight into the tank for any long periods of time. This could really overheat the chameleons. And like any other chameleon, enclosures should be in low traffic areas where they won’t be bothered by children and pets.
It’s undetermined whether or not Brevicaudatus utilize UVA/B rays. Just the same I offer it to them since this is what they get in the wild, and it also benefits the live plants in the enclosures. I have also read that other keepers have had success with other types of fluorescent bulbs.
I currently use new Reptisun 2.0, 5.0, and used 5.0 bulbs in my enclosures. I would recommend a 2.0 or a used 5.0 bulb since I have noticed some of my min-palm plants getting burned from the new 5.0 bulbs. I am not entirely convinced that the new 5.0 bulbs are safe either despite no apparent problems with the chameleons. I would also think that the new 10.0 bulbs available would be out of the question as well. Play it safe and make sure there are shaded areas in the enclosure so that the chameleons can avoid the UV rays if they choose to. Remember that they inhabit areas where there are only patches of light making it through to the forest canopy – try and recreate this with some darker more shaded areas in the enclosure. Many times that’s were they like to spend their time.
The day cycle is set to 12 hours, and I do not adjust this for the winter. Tanzania is just south of the equator so daylight hours don’t change much throughout the year.
Brevicaudatus are eating machines and will eat just about anything. Below is a table consisting of all the different feeders I offer and some comments along with them.
|Staple / Treat
|Love / So-So / No Touchy
|Where to Buy
|No bigger then .25 inch crickets. This should be your primary feeder offered at each feeding.
|Just about everywhere. Been happy with Ghann’s
|I primarily use Chinese mantids which have a high die off rate and are very cannibalistic. So I feed them out immediately after hatching. Depending on the size of the enclosure, I may put 1-3 egg cases affixed to the back wall of the enclosure. When I have an egg case hatch in a deli cup, I typically distribute the nymphs in all the enclosures. I also add some fruit flies for the mantids to eat.
|Collect locally, Kingsnake classifieds, eBay
|Treat or Staple
|A good feeder but they tend to hide too quickly. On more then one occasion I have found an adult lobster roach in a tank. I feed nymphs mostly to babies and small juveniles which are kept in critter containers where it’s difficult for a roach to hide.
|Just about everywhere, Kingsnake classifieds
|Treat / Staple
|I have problems keeping the pupa in the fridge so I just end up hatching them all. Inevitably the majority of them die. The holes in the screen tops are big enough for them to fly out so I burn their wings off with a long barbecue lighter before feeding them out. Sounds cruel but you don’t want flies loose in the house. Putting them in the fridge for 10 minutes slows them down – which gives you enough time to burn the wings off. Make very fast passes with the lighter so that you don’t kill the flies or burn off all their legs. The larger species of fly from Grubco.com is too big for these chameleons.
|I occasionally get the chameleons to eat these. Should be stored in the fridge.
|I offer smaller worms and have had some luck with them eating them. The majority of the time I wait until moths hatch
|Just about anywhere
|These will emerge from the worms and the chams love them. A lot of the time I can hand feed them out.
|Cant buy the moths – so get the worms
|Small Silk Worms
|Will eat them some of the time, the worm needs to be moving around to catch their attention.
|Wild Caught Insects
|I do offer WC caught insects. Anything the appropriate size that doesn’t look sketchy. Meaning that it doesn’t have large mandibles (ants, etc.), doesn’t look poisonous (warning colors), no stingers, and no snails or slugs (parasites). You are always taking a chance with WC insects since some may contain pesticides or it just could be a harmful insect. I don’t offer spiders either. I personally don’t like spiders and I’m afraid they may bite the cham and cause an infection. On the other hand, I believe pygmies in general do like them (field studies / stomach contents) – your call. Beetles never seem to peak their interests either.
|I have the Zoo-Med bug catcher that I put out at night. It does a pretty good job catching moths. I plan on experimenting with some ground traps next summer.
|I don’t offer these but have tried them just see what response I would get. Brevs don’t seem interested in them and you would really need a feeder cup since they immediately burrow into the substrate. In my opinion they are a junk feeder that shouldn’t be offered.
|Local pet stores usually always have them.
|Not really a substantial meal but the chams do like them. They are sweet so maybe that’s what they like about them. Do yourself a big fat favor and culture them yourself. I have been happy with the medium I’ve been getting from flyculture.com. The hydei species is a larger more suitable fly but more difficult to culture then the melanogasters.
|This is something new to the pet trade that I’m trying out. It’s the larval stage of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) and they supposedly have a high calcium content. My experience with fly larva has shown that leaf chameleons have problems digesting them. Many times I would find undigested fly larva in the fecal matter. You would also need to offer these in a small feeder dish.
|Blackjungle.com / Kingsnake classifieds
Some of the feeders mentioned above should just be treats such as wax worms. Wax worms are the equivalent of a “Big Mac” (high in fat) so they should only be used as treats. Wax moths as well, they don’t really offer any good nutritional content so they are more of a “mental boost” treat in my opinion since they love them so much. Feeders such as crickets and house flies should be the staple since they are easily gut loaded.
I don’t use feeder cups since I am big on presentation and feel that a feeder cup just doesn’t look nice in a natural looking terrarium. However the chameleons probably could be trained to use one and a cup may be beneficial for feeders that like to dig in the substrate.
From my observations, the more active the food item is the more likely it will be consumed. When hungry, false chameleons will also go into a “hunt mode” by positioning themselves on perches facing down towards the ground – very much like true chameleons. Many times this behavior is exhibited early in the morning which is also the time I feed them. They will also readily accept snacks in the late afternoon.
Brevicaudatus also have pretty long tongues for their size. If you catch a glimpse of a strike, you may notice that the inside of the mouth has a very dark coloration – almost black. This is completely normal. My theory behind this coloration is to conceal its location while striking, a dark colored mouth is less noticeable then the typical pink one we find in many other species – at least near the forest floor. To add to this, I was channel surfing and came across some nature show in which a Boomslang snake was eating a chameleon. I also couldn’t help to notice that the chameleon had a locust in its mouth at the time.
My interpretation of this was that the chameleon gave up its location when making the strike and the snake capitalized from it. Many of us know that chameleons do not like to be seen/give up their location but at the same time they have to eat. I think brevicaudatus are somehow trying to make their presence a little less known when eating, hence the dark coloration of their mouths. Just a theory – could be complete rubbish.
Feeding Frequency / Over Feeding
Adults get fed every other day and it works out to be around two or three insects per chameleon. This accounts for feeders hiding, an extra hungry pygmy, etc. I would think that every three days would be fine too for adults. Babies and juveniles (under 4 months) get fed daily with appropriately sized food items such as 1/16 inch and pinhead crickets, roach nymphs and fruit flies.
Try to avoid over feeding if you can. Loose crickets can potentially cause problems such as chewing on sleeping chameleons (rare) and killing/maiming babies that have hatched in the enclosure. I have personally witnessed crickets attacking a hatchling and in one instance kill one. This is something you really want to avoid. They can also feed on plants and mosses which should also be avoided since it will ruin the plant.
A good way to gauge what’s getting consumed is to check the enclosure at night with a small flashlight to see what feeders have come out of hiding. This also serves as an opportunity to remove feeders such as crickets and roaches that have grown too big to be consumed. Large 8″ feeder tongs can be used to remove these insects. A few feeders running around is fine and expected, but if there are more then that then you may need to re-address how much is getting offered at each feeding.
Also keep in mind that Brevicaudatus have this interesting ability to vibrate/buzz. It’s still unknown why they do this, but on more then one occasion I have seen one vibrate while it was sleeping to thwart off a cricket crawling on it. So don’t be overly concerned with crickets attacking adult pygmies at night, but at the same time be very observant to what transpires when the lights go out. Almost every evening I take a look in each enclosure with a pen light to see what’s going on.
Gut Loading / Proper Nutrition / Maintaining Feeders
In my opinion gut loading is a top priority (up there with hydration) when it comes to keeping healthy chameleons. It’s also one of the most overlooked items for new keepers including myself at one time. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty about gut load but would rather point you to an article that covers some of the basics: Gutloading Basics.
One recommendation when choosing a gut load is to try the one available at WER. I have been using it for quite some time and attribute some of my success with brevicaudatus to this gut load. Several keepers including myself have “taste tested” it against some of the other commercial gut loads available and this one wins every time with feeders such as roaches and crickets. They also have an excellent worm bedding available too.
Along with a proper gut load, I offer fruits such as apples and oranges and leafy/collard greens such as mustard, dandelion, and occasionally kale. Take the time and research what’s best to offer, not every vegetable/fruit is ideal.
Get into the habit of cleaning out feeder enclosures on a regular basis. Doing so will promote healthier feeders and keep die offs to a minimum. I basically treat all my feeders like I treat my chameleons – they get just as much care. With warmer weather, I find that cleaning feeder enclosures is needed more often.
Supplementing is not an exact science and many experienced keepers will say less is better. These same keepers will also tell you to rely more on a comprehensive gut load along with the proper fruits and veggies then to rely on heavy vitamin supplementation. I agree with this but at the same time I like to experiment – especially with neonates. There will be problems associated with over and under supplementing, but I think under is the lesser of the two evils.
Below is the regimen I use with brevicaudatus which in some keeper’s eyes may be a bit intense for the babies and juveniles. So far my F1 brevicaudatus are turning out quite nicely with this regimen and I have also used this routine with wild caught specimens that were no more then two months old and they have since turned out well and produced offspring. I encourage keepers to experiment with supplementing and not necessary go with what I use. In the end/long term it could be completely wrong.
Babies (hatchling – 2 months)
Dust daily with calcium/D3 (alternate each day with Rep-Cal D3 and Miner-All I)
Dust every other day with a vitamin (Herptivite)
Juveniles (2 months – 6 months)
Dust 3 times a week with calcium/D3 (alternate each dusting with Rep-Cal D3 and Miner-All I)
Dust twice a week with a vitamin (Herptivite)
Adults (6 months and older)
Dust three times a month with calcium/D3 (alternate each dusting with Rep-Cal D3 and Miner-All I)
Dust twice a month with a vitamin (Herptivite)
Keep in mind that it’s my opinion that a good amount of the supplements either falls off or washes off since feeding usually happens right after misting when the enclosure is the wettest. Many times the feeders don’t get consumed right away so in a way I compensate for that (especially with babies) with this routine.
Brevicaudatus can be housed together normally without issue as long as a few guidelines are followed along with close observation.
- General rule of thumb is one chameleon per ten gallons which probably applies more with mid size tanks such as 29g and 30g enclosures. There are several exceptions to this though. A 1.1 group should be fine in a 10g or 15g enclosure. Large enclosures such as a 50g can house 6 or 7 comfortably as long as the foliage is dense enough.
- Males should only be housed together in large enclosures such as a 40-50g WITH close observation. Males can be aggressive with one another and a lot of the time it’s usually non-physical (color / size display), but even these encounters can cause stress to both chameleons which should be avoided. On at least one occasion I did witness a physical encounter in which the larger male slammed its body into the smaller one – knocking it to the ground. No injury but at the same time something to avoid. So as long as these encounters are few and far between, then there shouldn’t be any issue housing a couple males (MEANING 2) in larger enclosures (40-50g). Again I stress close observation, if there are regular encounters such as described above or one male isn’t growing/being deprived of food or getting picked on a lot then consider separating one of the males.
I find that females are quite indifferent with one another and seem to get along just fine. On several occasions I have seen a few roost together at night. Multiple females should be fine as long as the enclosure is big enough to accommodate them.
Co-Habitation with Other Species
Occasionally I get asked or read a thread about this online and the argument is usually the same. “Well if this species lives in the same habitat in the wild then why can’t we do it in captivity?” It may be true that the two species live in the same habitat and they may also have encounters with each other in the wild, but these encounters are few and far between. In a 29g (or 50g) tank these encounters could be a daily and/or nightly occurrence which would add unnecessary stress and in turn cause illness and then possibly death. So keep it pure in there.
Movement / Activity
Brevicaudatus are not considered very active chameleons and tend to stay in one spot for a day or two until moving on. Some may even find designated areas where they like to hang out. You will occasionally catch a few glimpses of activity which could be a male chasing down a female, feeding, drinking, breeding, nest building, gambling, etc.
One of my favorite bits of activity is when a female performs non-receptive gestures towards an advancing male. She will rock back and forth on whatever she is on quite violently and this sometimes knocks the male off a perch or herself or both. Males don’t seem to take this hint and will continue to advance towards the female. In the end the female may be able to run off – but other times the male will go as far to grab her tail so she doesn’t get away.
I observed one interesting moment when a female was bitten from below in the gular region by a cricket. She was noticeable bothered by it and squinted her eyes to show distress. Then with one quick jerk of her head she flung the cricket to the side, then immediately chased it down and ate it. Great thing about this was that I had a colleague over at the time to check out my crew – he was very amused by the whole ordeal – as was I.
Generally they are arboreal chameleons but do occasionally venture to the ground to pick out a nest site or to forage. I hardly ever see males descend to the top substrate unless there is a female in the general vicinity.
Despite their short length, their tails are somewhat prehensile – especially with males since their tails are typically a bit longer. The tail can curl just enough to form a hook which does help them navigate through the foliage.
As mentioned earlier, this species of chameleons vibrates (emit a low frequency sound). There are several theories behind why they do this. One that I subscribe to is a defensive gesture, either to deter an insect from causing it harm or to confuse a large predator into dropping/releasing it. Quite honestly I almost dropped one the first time I had one vibrate in my hand. It could be a form of communication as well. They are also able to do this at quite a young age; I have felt a subtly vibration (which also coincides with head nodding) with neonates no more then a few weeks old. If you want to read more about low frequency sounds with chameleons then please refer to this article: Vibratory Calls in True Chameleons.
Feigning Death/akinesia: I have observed this a few times but not nearly as much as with R. temporalis.
Coloration / Mimicry
The majority of the colors displayed are shades of browns, yellow, black, gray and the occasional hint of blue, green, orange, and red. Most of the time females will show no patterns or very little patterns unless they are stressed in which their patterns will be well defined. Males will usually have some sort of pattern going on especially in the eye turrets if females are present, but when they are calm they usually take on a flat brown color with little pattern. When overly stressed (from prolonged handling which should be avoided), both sexes will turn a light shade of yellow.
Many of us have heard the tale that chameleons change their colors to match their surroundings. I agree that the majority of the true chameleons can’t mimic their surrounding. False chameleon on the other hand is something I am leaving open ended. I have one WC female who just loves to hang out on the cork flat in the back of the enclosure and she has this ability to mimic the cork patterns on parts of her skin. I have also seen this behavior with some of the other African species that I am currently working with.
They don’t call them leaf chameleons for nothing! When they feel threatened or don’t want to be seen, both sexes will laterally compress their bodies so that they take on a leaf shape. This works quite well and even I have trouble finding them when they are no more then a few inches away from me. They will also take on this shape when sleeping in the open.
Unlike true chameleons, brevicaudatus will usually shed in 1 or 2 pieces of skin and then sometimes consume it. Problems with shedding are usually associated with humidity being too low.
Before making a purchase you need to be able to properly ID them. Brevicaudatus is the only species of African leaf chameleon that have a dermal lobe under their chin – this is basically several elongated scales.
Buyers beware: It’s awfully common to mistakenly get species other then brevicaudatus when making a purchase. This is usually due to the seller incorrectly identifying the chameleons. Many times R. temporalis gets confused with this species. Don’t take the seller’s word for it either – really try and get pics first. I can’t tell you how many times I have had the seller say “Yeah, it’s this species, I’m sure of it” only to get something else. Unwillingly, I currently have several different species of African leaf chameleons.
If possible, you will want either captive bred (CB) or captive hatched (CH) specimens. You may run into problems with captive hatched since it’s quite possible that egg development occurred during transport from Africa (then from the importer to you and possibly another in-between). During this time the chameleons are not usually getting adequate food or water and this lack of nutrients may trickle down to the developing eggs and in turn produce sub par neonates. Not all CH brevicaudatus fall under this scenario though. Numerous times I have had wild caught (WC) females lay fertile eggs in quarantine tanks (without the presence of a male) months after acquiring them. I think it’s safe to say that brevicaudatus DO retain sperm and this theory has also been mentioned in the “Stump-tail” book.
There are many advantages to getting CB/CH specimens as apposed to WC
- You know the age (rather important since they don’t live much more then 2-3 years)
- Acclimated to captivity
- Hopefully parasite free
- Accustomed to eating common feeders
- Should be healthy / injury free (breeder ethics here)
- Know the blood lines (again Ö breeder ethics)
How to pick out a healthy specimen
This is very much like any other chameleon
- Eyes should be full / rounded and not sunken in
- Chameleon should have both eyes open and look alert
- If possible, hold the chameleon to verify that it has a strong grip for its size
- The area near the back of the neck where the skull starts, ribs, etc. should NOT be overly defined – this is a sign of being under weight and/or sickness. Skin should not be overly wrinkly as well
- No injuries such as skin lesions and/or mouth problems should be visible
- Chameleon should be able to move all its limbs properly
- No swelling of any kind (gular region / limbs)
- No visible signs of subcutaneous worms
Many times the animal won’t be available for inspection and sometimes breeders/importers do not offer to send pics, but at the same time these questions should still be asked.
I think almost for certain that WC specimens are going to have some sort of parasite load. This may not be a problem as long as the chameleon is healthy (minus the parasites). There exists some sort of equilibrium between the chameleon and the parasite(s) which tends to work out between the two. Problems occur when the parasites get an upper hand through dehydration, lack of food, sickness, stress, etc.
I did initially treat some of my WC brevicaudatus for parasites but lately I have decided against it. The vast majority of my WC brevicaudatus have not been treated and they look and act healthy. I would consider treating a sick one for parasites if it were suggested by a Vet but normally in my opinion, if the chameleon isn’t broke (looks healthy) then don’t fix it.
NOTE: Captive bred/hatched chameleons should never be kept with wild caught due to parasites. A Vet could better describe this but in Laymen’s Terms Ö a CB chameleon that has started its life with no parasites only to be introduced to them down the road may be too much for it to handle. Keep in mind that WC animals have spent the majority of their lives living with parasites, so it’s something their bodies have been accustomed to. A CB animal that has most likely no parasite load that gets parasites from a WC animal later in development may not be able deal with them which could result in death. Kind of like a resistance to alcohol – what would give an alcoholic a minor “buzz” may put me in the emergency room. Also avoid housing CB/CH animals in enclosures that once housed WC animals.
The older the specimen the easier it is to sex them and it’s certainly easier to do when you have others to compare to.
- Typically are smaller and will have a slimmer body type
- The dorsal crest is more rigid / defined then with a female
- Males have longer tails
- Males will usually have some sort of pattern which is much more apparent especially in the eye turrets/flanks when displaying for a female
- Typically have a larger more rounded body type
- The dorsal crest is rounded less defined
- Females have shorter tails
- Females have more subdued coloration (light browns) with no patterns (or very little) unless stressed
Where to purchase brevicaudatus
When choosing your group keep in mind that male + female = babies and babies could still come from retained sperm if all you have are WC females. Obviously this will tack on some extra responsibility that you will need to consider. Of course there is a chance that they won’t breed, but I would make the assumption that they will and plan for it. If breeding is the intention then a 1.2 or 1.3 group would be a good start. I personally feel that having two or more females instead of one takes some of the breeding pressure off the one female. Males from my observations are always ready to breed so to have just one female puts a lot of pressure on her – so two or more is better. I also find that females tolerate advances from males pretty well.
Acclimating Wild Caught Specimens
I find brevicaudatus to be a very hardy chameleon. I really don’t do anything special with new arrivals other then offering more water then the rest of the crew for the next several days and to also give them space and not bother them. I do offer them food right away and many times they will eat minutes after being out of the box. It may take several days or several weeks and in some cases months for a chameleon to become fully acclimated to captivity. My experience with brevicaudatus has shown that they acclimate pretty well and usually only take a week or so for them to settle in. Out of the 11 WC specimens I have purchased I have only lost one to illness, and that was within 10 days of receiving it. Most of my current brevicaudatus have been in my care for well over 10 months, some over a year.
I highly suggest quarantining new arrivals from the rest of the group for obvious reasons. I have 10g tank and an extra large critter keeper just for this.
Health Issues / Signs of Trouble / Preventive Maintenance
These little chameleons are not as delicate as you would think, but extra care is definitely needed when handling them. They will readily crawl on your hand with a subtle nudge and are not considered “jumpy” but at the same time they are not all that graceful since it’s difficult for them to get a firm hold on your hand due to their size. So don’t expect them to jump but be very careful not to drop them and try to keep your hand level when holding them. If you do drop one, they will exhibit the same behavior as true chameleons and “puff out” to help break their fall and then sometime play dead afterwards.
Like any other chameleon, handling should be kept to a minimum, but on the flipside they do need to be handled on the occasion for close inspection. About every 2 weeks I will remove each chameleon and give it a good look over. I look for swelling, lesions, mouth abscesses, eye issues, drop in weight, gravid or not, etc. I do pay close attention to them while misting but you really need to take them out for these close inspections. Taking close up pics with a camera is another good way of inspecting them too.
Issues That I have Dealt With
When dealing with health issues play it safe and see a qualified exotics Vet BEFORE taking action on your own. Down the road when you’ve become more experienced with common ailments, learned to give a shot, clean wounds, etc. then it MAY be possible for you to take certain measures on your own with guidance from your Vet. Don’t do anything that you’re not comfortable with and don’t get a false sense of security either once you’ve learned a trick or two.
I tend to get the impression that because of their size and cheaper cost then true chameleons that leaf chameleons have some how received the “disposable lizard” label much like anoles. This isn’t an excuse for not taking it to a Vet. You may have only paid $25 (or less) for the chameleon and I know that one Vet visit will surely surpass the purchase amount, but that is not an excuse for denying it medical care when needed. Bringing the animal in may teach you something as well – letting it die teaches you NOTHING.
I have run into a couple mouth problems (one minor, the other more serious). The more serious one involved an adult male that had some swelling on his lower jaw. I brought him into the Vet and an abscess was removed along with a large portion of the skin. A culture was taken (DO THIS whenever you can – know what you are dealing with) and a Pseudomonas infection was identified (common reptile bacteria). I was given Ceftazidime (Ceptaz, Fortaz and Pentacef are examples) along with syringes for treatment. The infection did go away but the damage will take some time to completely heal. The other mouth issue was superficial and was cleared up with the same treatment.
Sometimes I catch mouth problems very early, and will usually treat the area with a Q-tip mildly dampened with some Virosan/Nolvasan. This disinfectant works great and I also use it to clean containers, tools, etc., I use to maintain my collection. It shouldn’t be consumed though so only use a very small amount on the Q-tip.
This is recent a photo of the male with the serious mouth problem. The infection is gone and the wound does look gruesome but he is functioning fine with it. The open areas seem to be filling in with what some seems to be bone.
This could just be some debris caught in the eye or an actual infection which would require a Vet visit. Cleaning the eye of a pygmy chameleon isn’t too difficult once you’ve learned how to handle them. I will usually take a plastic tip syringe and squirt some water into the eye. Not with any excessive force but just enough to work some water under the eyelid and possibly loosen any debris. Next I will take a very damp Q-tip and pass it across the eye in a rolling motion. The chameleon will instinctively retract the eye for protection leaving the flaccid eyelid which makes cleaning easier. The rolling/twisting motion of the Q-tip helps work out the debris and this does work best with plenty of water on the Q-tip.
Once in a while I will run across a chameleon with a small wound, this could have been caused by any number of things such as a fall, aggressive mating, feeder bite, etc. Usually I will clean the area with a moist Q-tip and apply a topical antibiotic such a Silvadene (Silver sulfadiazine) or Polysporin. When it comes to follow-up treatments I try and find a “happy in-between” meaning that I don’t necessarily want to treat this wound daily due to stress and I also feel that me poking at it/cleaning the area all the time doesn’t allow for it to heal on its own. Remember your Mom telling you not to pick at scabs or else it will never heal? Kind of my mentality with superficial wounds – treat it once and keep a close eye on it. I may treat the wound again a day or two later, but if things get worse after a few days it’s off to the Vet.
Items to have on Hand
It’s always good to be prepared so I like to keep plenty of items on hand in the event I run into problems. My Vet is also very good at allowing me to purchase things like syringes, pre-diluted antibiotics, and topical antibiotics. It’s also assumed that I will contact the Vet first before taking action. Having supplies on hand may save you a trip to the Vet. Many of these items are not that expensive, a tub of Silvadene which will most likely expire before I use it all only cost me $6 US.
Here are some good “starter” items to keep around
- Polysporin / Neosporin
- Plastic tipped syringes (good for administering water and irrigating eyes)
- Eye lubricant/ointment
Once you have dealt with an issue or two and have been to the Vet you may be able to get your hands on other items such as
- Antibiotics (injections / topical)
Signs of Trouble
Like true chameleons, false chameleons can take a nose dive very quickly once a problem surfaces and there is a point of no return. So don’t wait a day or two before seeing a Vet since that may be too late. I also find that I run into more problems with my false chameleons then with my true ones. This emphasizes a point made earlier that these chameleons shouldn’t be a “first chameleon”.
- Loss of weight
- One or both eyes closed for prolonged periods
- Constant dark coloration
- Stops eating / drinking
- Problems grasping, moving, lethargic
They are truly wonderful chameleons which are over looked by many true chameleon keepers. I suspect that this is mainly due to their lack of colors and short tales along with the little husbandry information available for them.
Keep in mind what these little chameleons are trying to do, they don’t want to be seen and to do this they mimic leaves – and they do an excellent job at it. At one point they were thought to be quite rare in the wild but this was mainly due to the fact that they are extremely difficult to find. Here a photo that I Photo Shopped a bit to emphasize how well they can do this.
The best pieces of advice I can offer are to be consistent with the care, be observant / react, and occasionally question yourself and what you are doing. I hope this article either helps in your husbandry or inspires you to take on these incredible chameleons. Thanks for reading!
- Necas, Petr / Schmidt, Wolfgang (2004). “Stump-Tailed Chameleons – Miniature Dragons of the Rain Forest”. Chimaira Buchhandelsgesellschaft, Germany.
- Goldie, Craig. Chameleon Profile: Rhampholeon brevicaudatus. www.adcham.com
- Spicer, Martin. Rhampholeon brevicaudatus. http://www.ukchameleons.co.uk
- Necas, Petr / Schmidt, Wolfgang. “Brookesia & Rhampholeon”. Reptilia number 35.
I would also like to thank Chris Anderson, Robert Ossiboff, Carl Cattau, and the online chameleon community for their insight and invaluable expertise.