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Chameleon Behavior: What To Expect

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Chameleons are generally shy, cautious and solitary creatures. While they’re not generally vicious, they can put on aggressive displays if they feel threatened and can bite if those displays are ignored. Chameleons are not cuddly pets and would prefer to be left alone rather than be held.

General Behavior

Chameleons are solitary creatures. As humans, we not only like to socialize with other humans, it is a necessity for our well being to have some social interaction.

None of this is true for chameleons. Chameleons do not want the company of their own species and, in fact, will feel threatened when another member of their species is nearby, particularly if they are the same sex.

This is magnified if it’s a member of a different chameleon species and, more still, if it’s a member of a different species altogether, including humans.

Chameleons will a lot of the time change color, hiss, lunge and gape their mouths open if they encounter any other creature in their vicinity.

If two chameleons of the opposite sex are in the same vicinity and want to mate some of these displays will occur, but it will form part of the courtship ritual and two chameleons in this situation will move towards each other rather than away.

If the female isn’t interested, she will let the male know by moving away, displaying aggressive postures and attempting to bite if the male still doesn’t get the message.

We, of course, all know that chameleons change color, but they change color as part of their behavior.

It was generally thought they change color to match their environment, but they don’t. Instead, they use color changes to reflect their moods, for courtship purposes, when in fight or flight mode or whether they’re too cold.

Another more overlooked aspect of chameleon behavior is the way they walk. Chameleons walk in slow, jagged movements. This is their attempt to mimic a leaf blowing in the wind in order to disguise themselves from possible predators in the area.

Temperament

Chameleons generally have similar temperaments, but there are slight differences between the three main chameleons generally kept as pets.

  • Veiled Chameleon Temperament – Veiled chameleons are generally considered to be the most aggressive. This doesn’t mean they will attack at will, but they are extremely territorial and will often put on an aggressive display if you go near their territory. My veiled chameleon grew more tolerant of me near his enclosure over time, but he’d still let me know it was his house now and then.
  • Panther Chameleon Temperament – While panther chameleons have a similar temperament to veiled chameleons, they are, in general, a little less aggressive than veiled chameleons. They would still prefer to be left alone and will let you know with a hiss if they feel threatened.
  • Jackson’s Chameleon Temperament – Jackson’s chameleons are the most docile out of the three. They’re not as quick to make an aggressive display and are generally easier to handle. Like other chameleons, I would advise against regular handling, but sometimes chameleons need to be held in order to check on their health and Jackson’s chameleons are the easiest to handle.

Implications of behavior for captivity

Knowing that chameleons are generally shy and solitary will help you understand better how to care for them in captivity.

It’s not advised to house chameleons together with other chameleons, and definitely not advised to house with any other species.

I’ve seen instances where two chameleons are housed together, but these are nearly always a male and a female and always in an enormous enclosure, much bigger than ones readily available in stores.

People who keep more than one chameleon often house them separately and make sure they can’t even see other chameleons in separate enclosures to reduce stress. If you’re new to chameleon keeping, just stick with one at a time.

The fact chameleons are solitary means they generally do not like to be held. While it’s possible that chameleons will tolerate being held they, in general, do not like it and nearly every time I hear of a chameleon being held regularly they often have a short life span.

This is because chameleons are really vulnerable to stress and anything that doesn’t take into account their natural behavior will cause them stress, and that stress will lead to illness further down the line.

How to make a pet chameleon more comfortable

The truth is most chameleons will always be cautious and shy, this is just their way and they prefer to be left alone. This is one of the main things I love about them.

Chameleons are therefore best observed rather interacted with too much. Even just observing chameleons can still make them nervous, but there are ways to mitigate this.

  • House them in a quiet room – They don’t have to be completely out of the way, but if you have a room that is regularly used by the entire family at the same time, try and have their cage somewhere quieter. They will still be nervous with one or two people looking at them, but less so and over time they will be more comfortable with it. A too busy room can stress them out.
  • Let your chameleon associate you with food – This will happen naturally over time anyway, but you can speed this process up by hand feeding your chameleon. Just hold an insect far enough away for it to shoot with its tongue. Once your chameleon is used to this try holding your other arm out and lower than your chameleon’s eye line, hold the insect out but just a bit too far away for your chameleon to shoot his tongue at. As it moves closer, move the insect further away again, this way your chameleon will calmly walk onto your hand without knowing. Once there, just leave it be and let your chameleon do its own thing.
  • Never pick it up – By this I mean never reach your hand over a chameleon’s back and try to pick them up. The chameleon may not show it, but its stress levels will be sky-high if you do this because this is how a predatory bird would catch them in the wild. Also, you can hurt their feet if they’re firmly gripped on a vine or damage their claws if you try to pick them up like this directly from the screen mesh.
  • Make sure they can climb higher – Higher than your head! So place the cage on a table and have perches that at least a couple of feet higher than your head, as this allows them to not feel so threatened and that you’re about to swoop on them as prey.
  • Plant the enclosure well – Put a good three or four plants in there with good foliage cover. Not so much that some areas are too dark, but enough so your chameleon can feel safe and hide in should they need to.
  • Move slowly – Whenever you go near the cage, try and move slower and don’t make sudden movements. Again, this will make them feel more comfortable and less likely to puff up and be defensive. Also, try and wear neutral colors as well if possible, as too bright or too dark can freak them out!

Conclusion

Don’t worry if even after you try all these things, your chameleon still lunges, puffs up and hisses. As I said earlier, being cautious and shy is just their nature, and acting out when they feel threatened is part of that. To me, it’s part of their appeal and what makes them so fascinating to observe.

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One response to “Chameleon Behavior: What To Expect”

  1. Pierre Blais avatar
    Pierre Blais

    Hi my veiled chameleon is about 4.5 months old.I have had him for about 3 weeks.The girl who took care of him at the pet store would take him out at least 5 to 10 times per day and he has become used to it. Now I onIy take him out when its sunny outside. I have a hibiscus tree(4.5 ft high) in front of my patio doors and every afternoon he climbs on my arm and I bring him to the bottom of the tree where he immediately starts to climb to the top sunniest spot of the tree and he stays there for quite a while Since he has been used to coming out of his cage since he was about 1.5 inches long he now seems to enjoy being taken out 2 to 3 times per day.