Care For The Pygmy Dead-Leaf Chameleon

Attractive to hobbyists for not only the ability to be housed in small enclosures but also for how creepy and weird some of them can be, pygmy chameleons can independently rotate their eyes and shoot their tongues a minimum of  2½ times the length of their bodies. These convenient attributes help them hunt food while remaining inconspicuous. 

pygmy dead leaf chameleon

Photos courtesy Karen Bainbridge

Newly hatched Rhampholeon accuminatus exploring for food.

A variety of pygmy chameleon species buzz (vibrate) like a cell phone, similar to veiled chameleons. Some species tic like the hands of a watch as they make dramatic lunging motions while walking. These oddities are considered a form of communication or defense mechanism. Some species are also known for their ability to fake death via akinesia (impaired muscle movement). This is my personal favorite. They simply fall off a branch and hit the floor. A common misconception about all chameleons is the belief they can use their color-changing abilities as camouflage. In reality, color changing only happens to attract females, fight, show stress or while basking. Quite a few species of pygmy chameleons are a dull-brown color. Decaying piles of leaves are similar in color and shape, helping to perpetuate this camouflage myth. Pygmy dead leaf chameleon coloration and lined patterning is where these nicknames are derived. Dead leaf, pygmy leaf, dwarf leaf, spiny leaf, brown leaf, bearded leaf, minute leaf-there are entirely too many similar names confusing the hobbyist while researching the environment best suited for their new inmate. 

 An additional issue is the large range of distribution of pygmy chameleons, from Madagascar to Tanzania, Usambara and the Congo. Madagascar species experience severe dry seasons, while some of the other areas are rainier. These environmental differences may be a requirement to trigger breeding or laying eggs in the species accustomed to them. As keepers, we must try to duplicate nature. Your job is to educate yourself on how to care for your subjects. 

Pygmy Chameleon Variety 

All pygmy chameleons are CITES protected and regulated. Captive breeding has been successful in a number of species. The biggest obstacle for establishing breeding colonies is the misinformation surrounding the Brookesia, Rhampholeon and Rieppeleon species because of the aforementioned nicknames in the market place. 

Female Rhampholeon accuminatus basking

Photos courtesy Karen Bainbridge

Female Rhampholeon accuminatus basking.

The habitat members of the Brookseia genus can be found in mainly consists of deciduous forest in several different locations. 
Brookesia minima is found on Nosy Be Island off the Northwest coast. They are commonly called the dwarf chameleon, the Madagascan dwarf chameleon, or the minute leaf chameleon

Brookesia peyrierasi is from northeastern portion of Madagascar. It is commonly known as Peyrieras’ pygmy chameleon.
 Rhampholeon is a genus commonly known as pygmy chameleons or African leaf chameleons, distributed through central east Africa into the Congo. They are found mostly in the highlands. Generally, they are brown, grey or green.

Rieppeleon is a genus of small brown chameleons found in east Africa, as well as to a small pod in the Congo. Until recently, these were commonly included in the Rhampholeon genus. 

Rieppeleon brevicaudatus is commonly known as the bearded leaf chameleon or bearded pygmy chameleon, originating from the Usambara and the Uluguru Mountains in northeastern Tanzania. It is identified by the presence of a ‘beard,’ consisting of a few raised scales.

Pygmy Chameleon Vivarium Setup

Terrestrial for the most part, pygmy chameleons are still arboreal, staying in low bushes, about 10 inches off the ground. They will dig into the leaf litter in times of heat or during the dry season for moisture. 
Before setting up a vivarium, research the climate and wild habitat for your specific species. This is particularly important pertaining to the humidity and rain needed. 

pygmy dead leaf chameleon

Photos courtesy Karen Bainbridge

Female Rhampholeon accuminatus hunting while in relaxed coloration.

Picking a vivarium is important. This will be the most costly aspect of your chameleon adventure. You will need a vivarium tall enough for a 1-foot tree and a dense stick structure. Include room for 6 inches of play sand for the vivarium base, as females often like to dig right down to the bottom of vivarium to lay their eggs. I always leave the plants in their pots, with the dirt covered with moss. Make sure all plants are non-toxic with good drainage. This ensures the eggs will not drown when laid and helps to reduce bacteria in the vivarium. Airflow is very important, as well as drainage, for the health of the habitat. Change leaf litter and assess drainage monthly to help maintain a healthy environment free of mold and bacteria.

Pygmy Chameleon Lighting

Consider the habitat in the wild where these small species exist. They frequent low bushes and grasses, mostly out of direct sunlight. A low-heat-emitting bulb is best when keeping pygmy species. 
Heat is a killer for these forest-floor inhabitants. The temperatures may be in the 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. However, in the leaf litter and low bushes, temps will in the mid-70 degrees. Make sure they have cool, damp places to hide in the vivarium at all times. Normal room temperatures are recommended between 50 to 78 degrees. 

Feeding Pygmy Chameleons

Seasonal food strikes may occur, especially if your chameleon is overfed or offered only one or two types of insects. Portion control is hard when you love this creature and want to ensure it is healthy and happy. Pygmy chameleons take the opportunity to eat whenever food presents itself, unlike most chameleons in the wild that spend a great deal of time hunting. Some days, no food is available, and they go without. Keeping your chameleons lean and hydrated gives it a better chance at longevity.

pygmy dead leaf chameleon

Photos courtesy Karen Bainbridge

Female Rhampholeon accuminatus stressed coloration.

In captivity, food of choice varies from crickets to flies, cockroaches, praying mantids and beetles. Offer an average of five to 10 size-appropriate insects to your chameleons per feeding. Rule of thumb in measuring insect size is to offer food no larger than the distances from eye socket to eye socket on a chameleon’s head. I prefer free-range feeding, allowing the chameleon to hunt and get exercise. However, a plastic feeding dish placed under a branch for easy access is fine. The chameleon may eat every other day at times or even go off food for a longer period in the cooler months. Fully hydrating chameleons is essential, especially when they are not eating, as proper hydration will stimulate appetite.

All insects in the market place are grown in controlled/sterile environments. This protects the production colony from disease. The food the insects are raised on is not necessarily good for the reptiles and amphibians. Chicken mash, which is the industry standard to raise insects, is particularly high in synthetic vitamins, and it needs to be purged from the insect prior to feeding it to chameleons. We use Vit-All to purge and gutload our insects.

We have always advocated feeding a healthy diet, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, for a period of 24 hours minimum once the insects arrive, then gut load using Vit-All. This type of purge, then gutload, ensures the prey is properly vitamin rich and free of potential toxins, which may be used to grow the insect itself. Planning ahead will keep your animals from getting sick from insects that may not be healthy to consume.

Chameleons this small may require you to become an amateur entomologist. To provide a varied diet, I raise fruit flies, bean beetles, rice flour beetles and either hatch out pinhead crickets myself or purchase them at the local supplier for all my chameleons. I’ve even gone so far as to get a net or pillowcase and collect tiny insects by beating the bushes or sweeping the lawn. 

 I like to tell people that apples are good for us, but if all we ate were apples, we would become very ill. Same theory feeding a cricket-only diet. This also applies to what you feed the cricket, as well. Variation is a key component in successful captive diets. Take care when feeding out crickets in a free-range manner, making sure they get eaten quickly, as strays often will eat at the eyes of chameleons or eat at any eggs left in the vivarium if you chose not to remove them to incubate. 

Pygmy Chameleon Hydration

These small chameleons can dehydrate easily. Hydration is important. Spray twice a day, heavily, with a fine mist, taking care not to over saturate the vivarium. I find automatic misting systems, like the Aqua Zamp, are quite handy for proper hydration. Air flow and drainage monitoring will help to reduce a bacteria outbreak, which can be fatal to pygmy chameleons. 

Breeding Pygmy Chameleons

Pygmies are generally sexually dimorphic, with the males having a much thicker tail base and the tail is slightly longer; they also have more horizontal striping at times than the female.

pygmy dead leaf chameleon

Photos courtesy Karen Bainbridge

Newly hatched Rieppeleon brevicaudatus.

I’ve had good success breeding colony style with pygmy chameleons-one male to three females in a vivarium. I would put one male in a vivarium that is 12 inches long by 12 inches wide by 18 inches tall, or larger, by himself and then have a colony of three females and another male in a vivarium that is approximately 24 inches long by 24 inches wide by 18 inches tall. I then rotate the males to ensure proper fertilization. This ensures that if an individual is sterile, it won’t totally ruin a breeding project. Pygmy chameleons grow quickly and have a short incubation of eggs. Baby to baby in a year is easily attained with these species. They  reach full maturity in approximately 8 to 9 months of age.

The pygmy chameleons are oviparous. Females lay their eggs in soft soil or piles of dead foliage on the forest floor, where natural decomposition of the leaves provides a constant level of heat and humidity. Many breeders, myself included, have had success with simply leaving the eggs where the female lays them and letting the babies hatch out in the vivarium. 

Females will dig deep and lay their eggs close to the roots of a plant or the side of the tank. Clutches can be anything from two to five tiny eggs. Some hobbyists leave the eggs in the substrate to incubate, I dig them up and incubate at room temps in vermiculite, thus avoiding stray crickets eating eggs and babies that hatch unnoticed. Hatching occurs usually around six to eight weeks. When conditions are optimal, females may lay two clutches per year. This makes for a very satisfying breeding project for the keeper.

Pygmy Chameleon Neonate Care 

Neonate care is the same as the adults. Only one male per enclosure, with up to three females, is recommended. Even as hatchlings, they are very aggressive, and the males need to be kept separate. Most can be identified early by their hemi penal bulge, or coloration and shape, or pattern distinguishing the sexes. They are impossibly small when new and will require D. melanogaster fruit flies and pinhead crickets. They hatch slowly out of the egg and may just lay there for a few days, only half hatched. Don’t be alarmed. These creatures are painfully slow at times. 

pygmy dead leaf chameleon

Photos courtesy Karen Bainbridge

Rieppeleon brevicaudatus hatching.

Supplements for Proper Health of Pygmy Chameleons

Avoid MBD with Calcium

Smaller chameleon species seem more susceptible to husbandry mishaps where supplements are concerned. The hobbyist might not see how dire the situation is until disease is evident. A calcium crash, occurring in a laying female, is common with improper calcium absorption. As well as MBD (metabolic bone disease), appearing in the form of rubber legs or tremors. At this point, reversing the effects may be impossible. For your animals’ sake, be proactive instead of reactive. I use high-quality supplements—Sticky Tongue Farms’ Miner-All and Vit-All—as directed on the can per the specific animals’ needs.

MBD causes the females to be unable to expel their eggs, often resulting in death. Obese females that are full of eggs usually do not have much room for food intake, and this can also be a problem with the overly productive female. Egg production takes a lot out of the female’s system, and she must be adequately nourished with proper calcium, vitamins and minerals.

 Build the Immune System with Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant, which improves immune function and promotes mucous membrane health. This can reduce occurrence of upper respiratory infections, a major killer of reptiles and amphibians. The proper vitamin A dosage is essential. Make sure you are giving your animals a product with usable, non-toxic levels of vitamin A. Gut-loading insects is a much safer method of providing vitamin supplements to pygmy chameleons than a dust, especially for vitamin A. 

The initial sign of a vitamin A deficiency is infection/swelling of the eyelids, followed by respiratory infections, neurological dysfunction and spinal kinking. Difficulty shedding is another key clue in early detection of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. 

Excessive vitamin A supplementation can interfere with the metabolizing of vitamin D3, resulting in metabolic bone disease. Excess vitamin A supplementation may, and often does, lead to organ toxicity of the kidneys or liver and eventually death.

 Vitamin D

Excess vitamin D3 supplementation, especially in combination with calcium, may result in organ toxicity. Vitamin D deficiency typically causes rickets, skeletal deformity and softening of bones/shells, tremors, depression, lack of appetite and weakness in the legs, or inability to deposit eggs. Vitamin D helps support the absorption of calcium. Not enough and the bones become weak, too much and ossification of the soft tissue can occur, turning the intestines to bone.

Avoid Gout

Gout occurs when the level of uric acid in the blood exceeds the ability of the kidneys to remove it. The acid crystallizes in joints or deposits in organs, such as the liver, spleen, kidneys and lungs. All this happens internally and presents itself visually only when the situation is extreme, and by then it is often too late. Gout can be caused by using the wrong antiparasite medication or dosage, as well as starvation or prolonged dehydration.
Once gout is present, most reptiles need to be treated for the rest of their life or the condition will reappear shortly after treatment is discontinued. Consult your reptile veterinarian for the right course of action for your particular case.


Early detection is key for any chameleon’s survival. Stringy mucus in the mouth while drinking or eating is an early sign. Upper respiratory infections (URI) often present as an initial sign of some other condition in reptiles and amphibians. So don’t just treat the URI, figure out what is causing it to happen in the first place.

LINDA J. DAVISON owns Sticky Tongue Farms Inc., which, in addition to chameleons, produces the supplements Miner-All and Vit-All. She has worked with 24 different species over more than 15 years, including veileds, panthers and Parson’s. She also authored the book, Chameleons: Their Care and Breeding.

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