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Senegal Chameleon Diet Study – Nutrition Influences Prey Choice

Jackson’s ChameleonThe Senegal Chameleon (Chamaeleo senegalensis) has long been common in the pet trade, yet there remain significant roadblocks to longevity and breeding. I recently re-read a 1990 study on prey choice in this species. I then considered it in light of newer research that established a link between Vitamin D levels and chameleon basking behavior. I believe both contain important findings that may be applicable to many species.

“What, grasshoppers again”!

In the study that examined prey choice in Senegal Chameleons (J. of Herpetology: V.24, N.4: p.383), different groups of chameleons were fed solely on either Long-Horned Grasshoppers or House Crickets. Over a period of several days, those lizards feeding upon crickets showed a strong preference for grasshoppers, and those on grasshopper-only diets favored crickets.

I have also observed this in other chameleon species under my care at the Bronx Zoo, and in a variety of reptiles and amphibians. As long as the species is acceptable, novel prey usually causes a very strong feeding response. Indeed, zookeepers and hobbyists commonly say that captive herps “become bored” with crickets, mealworms and other staples.

A Link between Diet and Basking Behavior

The researchers conducting the 1990 prey-choice study theorized that reptiles may be able to track their nutrient intake, and then select prey accordingly…in essence balancing their diet. Fast forward to 2011, when some very significant (and largely over-looked, it seems!) chameleon-related information was published in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology (May-June, 2011).

Panther Chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) were found to regulate sun exposure in accordance with their Vitamin D3 levels. Chameleons maintained on diets that provided high levels of D3 reduced their basking time (Vitamin D3 is manufactured in the skin, in the presence of sunlight). Those individuals that were not provided with dietary D3 increased their exposure to sunlight.

Vitamin D receptors in the brain are believed responsible for monitoring the level of this vital nutrient. Interestingly, analysis revealed that the chameleons were as “effective as mathematically possible” in achieving optimal sun exposure! Seems that the authors of the 1990 study were correct in their belief that some reptiles can monitor nutrient levels (please see this article for more info).

Practical Advice for Chameleon Keepers

Long horned GrasshopperWhat can chameleon-keepers take away from this? Well, we still do not know precisely what constitutes a perfect diet for any species. That being said, I and others have had good success in keeping a number of chameleons on highly-varied diets, especially those that include appropriate wild invertebrates collected from pesticide-free areas (please see this article for diet suggestions).

The fact that chameleons have evolved a finely-tuned means of evaluating nutrient levels indicates that we must pay close attention to the diets of those under our care. Indeed, nutritional problems continue to plague private and public chameleon collections, and we need to do far more research in this area. Please keep an eye on the literature, and write in with your thoughts and experiences.

Senegal Chameleons as Pets

Senegal Chameleons can make hardy, long-lived captives, but only if their very specific husbandry needs are met. In additional to dietary concerns, stress related to poorly-designed enclosures, egg-retention, dehydration and other problems remain far too common. Please see the article below for further in formation.


Further Reading

Interesting articles, thesis dissertations and grants (chameleons and other lizards)
Senegal Chameleons: Common Health Concerns

Senegal Chameleon Care

Long horned Grasshopper image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Jazz


  1. avatar
    Harri Leopard Marquis

    We love Chameleons and your information is wonderful. Really nice and the picture is great… We were thinking about getting one…

    • avatar


      Thanks for the kind words; please let me know if you need any more info, I have quite a few chameleon and gecko articles posted. Good luck with your site, Best, Frank

  2. avatar

    I have a Senegal Chameleon she is about 10 months old. I have had her for 8 months now and I think she was a month or two old when I got her. Recently she stopped eating. I took her to the vet and they did an X-ray and said she had no blockages, she also did not have any eggs so she wasn’t egg bound. The vet also said her eyes and mouth looked very healthy and didn’t know why she wasn’t eating. At that time she was still drinking and going to the bathroom. So the vet gave me an antibiotic that was to help stimulate her appetite. Well I’m worried now because she still isn’t eating and I have not seen her drinking either. I was wondering if you have any suggestions? I have another vet appointment scheduled and I’ve been varying her diet like you suggest in your articles. I was also able to force feeder her a wax worm and get some water with calcium into her yesterday. I also got her to take some water again this morning. Please help!!!!

    • avatar

      Hi Brooke,

      Unfortunately we still know very little about their ailments, so even with expert vet care treatment is often difficult.let me know your day/night temps and UVB exposure when you have a moment. Any changes in the house…noise, more light at night, a cat or dog, etc? Also details re water..they may not get enough from spraying, a drip system sometimes needed.

      Best not to force feed for now, as this stresses the animal and makes it even more unlikely that it will feed on its own. They use reserves well, slow the metabolism etc , so starvation isn’t likely. Vet may suggest a liquid type supplement to be force fed, which you should do at that point..decision depends on several factors. Continue to spray, or offer water as you have been doing.. Waxworms can be tough to digest if metabolism is off, animal is ill.

      Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    Thank you so much for the info! For day time its 80F, and night time is 73-75F, I have Zoo Med Powersun UV 100w that runs on a timer for 12 hours. I have no other pets and no changes in the house noise etc.. I have the Exo Terra Monsoon RS400 Rainfall System and it is set every hour and half to spray for 30 seconds and I also have a dropper system as well.
    Thanks again,

    • avatar

      Hi heather,

      My pleasure; seems like you have a good set up; it would be useful to establish a warmer basking spot – 88-90 F; may take some experimentation to avoid super-heating the whole enclosure, but important that the animal is able to raise body temps above 80. Please keep me posted, frank

  4. avatar

    Thanks, I do have a hotter basking spot and it’s about 90 F on her limb that is closer to the UVB light. But will double check the temp there again.
    Thanks will keep you posted,

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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