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Chameleon Diets – The Best Foods for Pet Chameleons

Oustelet’s Chameleon in MadagascarHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Most chameleons will eagerly accept crickets and mealworms.  However, even if you use reptile vitamin/mineral supplements, a diet comprised of 2-3 insect species is not suitable for chameleons – or for hardly any reptile or amphibian.  Your lizards will survive on such fare for awhile, but will inevitably develop nutritional disorders and die “long before their time”.  To avoid this, please read the following article before purchasing a chameleon; the information provided is applicable to Parson’s, Panther, Veiled and all other popularly-kept species.

Variety, an Essential Consideration

A varied diet is essential if you are to have success in keeping, much less breeding, chameleons long-term. The few field studies that have been done indicate that free-living chameleons consume dozens of invertebrate species. 

Always strive to provide your pets with as many different invertebrates as is possible. This can be a time-consuming, albeit interesting, effort, so please consider this point carefully before purchasing any insectivorous reptile.

Collecting Insects and other Invertebrates

I’ve done well by relying upon wild-caught invertebrates during the warmer months and saving crickets, waxworms, roaches and other commercially-available insects for winter use. Any efforts towards this end are useful – for example, beetles or moths plucked from a window screen several times each week will go a long way in ensuring your pet’s good health. 

Collecting insects is actually quite interesting and a great deal of fun.  I’ve written a number of articles on insect collecting techniques and insect traps. Please check them out when you have a moment – you may discover a new hobby in the process!

The Zoo Med Bug Napper Insect Trap simplifies the collecting of moths and other flying insects.

Wild Invertebrates Suitable for Chameleons?

Green Tanzanian ChameleonChameleons refuse little in the way of live invertebrates. In fact, their enthusiastic reactions to new prey items may surprise you; I notice a real difference in their responses to, for example, moths as opposed to crickets. 

I provide moths, butterflies, hover-flies, beetles and their grubs, sowbugs, millipedes, grasshoppers, tree crickets, field crickets, katydids, harvestmen, earwigs, inch-worms and other “smooth” caterpillars and a variety of other easily-collected species.  Most chameleons seem to favor arboreal and flying insects over grubs and other terrestrial forms; many refuse earthworms.

Avoid using “hairy” caterpillars, spiders, large ants and other invertebrates that are able to bite or sting. A good invertebrate field guide (i.e. the Audubon or Peterson series) will prove indispensible. Brightly-colored insects are often toxic, as are fireflies.   

Do not collect during times when your area is being sprayed for mosquito control. For more on pesticide and related concerns, please see this article.

Commercially-Reared Insects

You should allow insects purchased for chameleons to themselves feed upon a healthful diet for several days, in order to increase their nutritional value (this process is often termed “gut loading”).  Please see the following articles to learn about the proper care of feeder insects:

Cricket Care

Mealworm Care

Roach Care

When wild-caught insects are unavailable, the main portion of the diet should not be crickets, but rather a mix of roaches, crickets, butterworms, super mealworms and waxworms.  Caterpillars such as silkworms and tomato hornworms are available via internet dealers, and should be offered regularly. 

I use mealworms and super mealworms sparingly, and select only newly-molted (white) individuals.  Mealworm pupae may be accepted when offered on tongs.

I powder most store-bought insects with supplements, alternating among Reptivite with D3ReptiCalcium and Reptocal.  I do not use supplements when feeding wild-caught invertebrates.

Canned Insects

Canned Insects such as grasshoppers, snails and silkworms are accepted from feeding tongs by many chameleons, and can be an important means of providing dietary variety when wild-caught insects are not available. 

Mice as a Calcium Source

A diet rich in mice appears to cause eye, kidney and liver problems in many insectivorous reptiles.  Chameleons are aggressive predators, and certainly take the occasional rodent in the wild, but research has shown that insects and other invertebrates form the vast majority of their natural diet. 

Parson’s, Panther and Oustalet’s chameleons, and other large species, seem to do well when offered a pink mouse every month or so.  Do not use fuzzy or adult mice – chameleons swallow their food alive, and may be injured by a rodent’s sharp teeth.  Hair may also lead to potentially fatal impactions.

Other Considerations

Ground ChameleonMany hobbyists find that it is easier to provide a varied diet to Dwarf and Leaf Chameleons than to larger species. Due to their small size, most will accept a wide variety of ants, flies, midges, millipedes and other tiny invertebrates that are very common in most environments.

As far as we known, chameleons require exposure to UVB radiation in order to manufacture Vitamin D3 in their skin and thus utilize dietary calcium.  Be sure to provide a high output UVB or mercury vapor bulb.

The Veiled Chameleon, a hardy (in chameleon terms!) favorite, includes a surprising amount of vegetation in its diet.

Please see the articles below for more information on these topics.

Please write in with your questions and comments. 

 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

Further Reading

Collecting Insects

Chameleon Basking Behavior

Veiled Chameleon Care

Dwarf Chameleon Care

Chameleon in Madagascar image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Bernard Gagnon
Tanzanian Chameleon image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Ales.Kocourek
Ground Chameleon image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Frank Wouters

4 comments

  1. avatar

    Hi Frank

    Excellent article as always.

    I live in Britain & have kept chameleons in the past. Even in bad weather through summer there is large numbers of wild species available here. Hover flies, butterflies and various other species and along with a little supplement I have done fine using these. Winter diet is a mix of gutloaded hoppers, crickets, waxworms & silkworms being careful not to overfeed species with high fat content. On a side note my senegalensis was obsessed with British house spiders & since he actively hunted them above any other food I always let him & never had a problem.

    A couple of things I would add is to remind people that adding calcium & mineral supplements to every single meal is usually bad & if you are using it then use sparingly. It may feel like you are giving your animal extra by constantly supplementing but it can actually be very harmful…similar to how humans can overdose on some vitamins.

    And finally having seen the consequences in my time in the farming districts of South Africa I wish to re-quote this from Franks article:

    “Do not collect during times when your area is being sprayed for mosquito control. ”

    Finally I would add if you live in farmland areas where regular crop spraying takes place then feeding wild flying insects to any lower vertebrate (reptiles, amphibians, fish) pet will probably end badly and I strongly recommend you read the article Frank linked to: http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2010/02/17/wildcaught-invertebrates-as-reptile-and-amphibian-food-some-concerns/

    Regards
    Jim

  2. avatar

    Hello Jim,

    Thanks so much for the kind words and valuable input.

    You raise a very good point. Here in the US wild inverts are largely ignored, and so supplementation takes on a more impt role than it should. Another problem is a widespread misunderstanding of the effective distances of the various UVB bulbs; in my experience, basking sites are often positioned too far from the lamps.

    I have seen over-supplementation problems, via necropsies at the Bx Zoo, in other herps (most notably snakes fed calcium-dusted rodents) and the potential re chameleons is very real. In fact, studies have shown that at least 1 species alters is basking behavior in accordance with dietary D3 levels (also interesting that they can utilize at least some dietary D3). Please see this article for details.

    Look forward to hearing from you here and n Twitter when possible.

    Best regards, Frank

  3. avatar

    Hey this is kinda embarassing to ask but, my chameleon lays these kinda like jelly things thatare about a inch long. she always does it in the same spot, but im not sure if it is just pooping in trhe same spot or if it is trying to lay an egg, i get these about once a month!? please writ back

  4. avatar

    Hi Caleb,

    Sorry for the delay, storm related problems in NY…..An excellent question that perplexes many. It’s difficult to say w/o seeing the material, and sometimes even then, but she may be passing unfertilized/un-shelled eggs. Most common in Veiled Chameleons, I believe, but not limited to that species – what species is she? Retaining eggs can lead to serious infections and death, so passing is a great sign. The lack of shells may be due to the stage at which they are being expelled, but can also be related to a Calcium deficiency; unfortunately, no way to tell w/o a blood test to determine CA levels. Please send me info on species, diet, supplementation, heat, UVB and perhaps I can narrow it down further. Best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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