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The Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) Purchase and Captive Care

by Petra Spiess

This article appeared in the July 1997 issue of Reptiles Magazine

Heating and Lighting: Essentials in Captive Management

Veiled chameleons like hot basking spots. It is not uncommon to see veileds basking even when the ambient temperature is 80 to 90 degrees F (Annis, 1995). It is critically important that the owner provide a heating lamp to create a basking spot of 90-105 degrees F at one end of the enclosure. The ambient air temperature in the rest of the cage should be 70's at nighttime, with a preferred rise to the 80's over the course of the day. Veiled chameleons who are not provided with appropriate basking spots will develop respiratory and/or digestion problems over time. By far the best way to provide the appropriate heating it to use a reflector lamp (also known as clamp or shop lights) and a heat bulb. Reflector lamps can be inexpensively purchased at hardware stores. The wattage of the heat bulb required to create a basking spot of 90-105 degrees F varies with the ambient temperature, but do not "guess" the temperature inside the enclosure. Purchase a good quality reptile thermometer and use it to determine the wattage needed. If for example, you purchase a 75 watt bulb, and it only raises the temperature under the basking spot to 85 degrees F, move up to a 100 watt bulb, which should raise the temperature to 90 or 95 degrees. Different types of bulbs produce different results. The best bulb for creating a really warm basking area is a spot bulb. Spot bulbs have a narrowly focused beam that raises the temperature higher than a different bulb of the same wattage. Any bulb that raises the basking spot temperature to the appropriate level is safe to use. The placement of the basking spot within the cage is rather important.

Reptiles, being ectothermic, do not manufacture their own body heat. In order to raise or lower their body temperature, reptiles rely on behavioral mechanisms. This is to say that when a reptile is too cold, it moves to a warmer area, such as a basking branch in the sun, and when the animal is too hot, it moves to a cooler area, such as a shaded branch. This behavioral mechanism is called thermoregulation. In captivity, we need to provide reptiles with a range of temperatures so that the animals may thermoregulate as they would in the wild. For veiled chameleons, that means one end of the cage should be the preferred ambient temperature, and one end should be at the basking temperature. If the enclosure is large enough, there may also be temperature differences at different heights. If you keep your veiled in a large enclosure, it is best to put the basking site at the highest point of the cage, so that the vertical temperature change mimics what occurs in nature. Once the heating requirements are met, it is time to provide for the lighting requirements. .

There is, as always, quite a controversy regarding correct lighting and chameleons. The current trend is to provide chameleons with full-spectrum fluorescent lighting that emits energy in the UVB wavelengths (290-315 nm). It is thought that when chameleons are irradiated with UVB, they create vitamin D3 under their skin from its precursor 7-dehydrocholesterol (Annis, 1995). Vitamin D3 is important for calcium absorption, and without appropriate amounts of vitamin D3, there is evidence to support the idea that chameleons will suffer from a calcium deficiency. However (this is where it gets more confusing!), there is a recent study that suggests that chameleons do not manufacture vitamin D3 by the photochemical process described above (Henkel and Heinecke, 1994). I have seen however, veiled chameleons kept under only plant grow lights develop symptoms of metabolic bone disease within a month. Whether what I saw was due to incorrect lighting, or incorrect dietary supplementation is difficult to say, as the person who had these sad chameleons had provided neither full-spectrum lighting nor calcium or vitamin D3 supplementation. What I can say unequivocally, is that the veiled chameleons I have raised under full-spectrum lighting with UVB, proper supplementation, and proper diet, have never developed symptoms of metabolic bone disease. Although the results of the Henkel and Heninecke study are interesting, one study does not a truth make, and as a result, I would still recommend using full-spectrum lighting with UVB in veiled chameleon enclosures as a precautionary measure. The best way to provide full-spectrum lighting with UVB in a captive situation is to have two fluorescent fixtures running the length of the enclosure. In one fixture, use a bulb that emits UVB, such as the ZooMed UVB 310 bulb. This particular bulb can cost a small herper fortune in a retail pet shop; the average retail price for this bulb is $40.00 each! However, there are ways around this. Mail order pet suppliers found in reptile and aquarist trade publications sell this bulb for almost half of the retail price. In the second fixture, use a full-spectrum fluorescent bulb such as a Vita-lite (which can also be found cheaper through mail-order). Both of these bulbs must be replaced after 6 months, as their ability to emit true full-spectrum light diminishes over time. Although there may be full-spectrum light in the enclosure, it is still a very good idea to allow veiled chameleons access to unfiltered, natural sunlight as often as possible. Before taking a veiled chameleon outside, the ambient air temperature must be over 60 degrees F. Do not take a chameleon outside in a glass aquarium, as these heat up very quickly, even in cold weather, and can overheat the animal. Also be sure to provide a shaded area where the chameleon can cool off to avoid overheating. One of the best ways to provide access to natural, unfiltered sunlight is to construct or purchase a simple outdoor enclosure that can be used during the warm summer months. The outdoor enclosure can be identical to the indoor enclosure if they are both constructed out of screen, and with the exception of the added shade areas. The next important aspect of veiled chameleon captive care is proper diet.

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