How to Breed Veiled Chameleons
The enormous and regal casque rising above the foliage is the first glimpse the female gets of her suitor. His turquoise and green body is irregularly banded with lemon yellow and streaked with orange and copper. As he moves toward her, his turreted eyes probe his surroundings for danger, but focus on the comparatively drab female that is his quest. She does not display the dark blackish-green coloration with robin’s-egg-blue spotting that indicates she has mated; she does not exhibit threat coloration and behavior. This female is receptive, and the male continues. Courtship begins.
This encounter between a pair of veiled chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) is not taking place in the coastal forests of southern Saudi Arabia, or even on an inland wadi of Yemen, where their wild brethren roam, but instead in a beautifully planted screen enclosure in a suburban family room. The pair did not hatch and begin seeking sustenance and territory in the dry mountain plateaus, temperate mountain slopes or humid coastal plains of the Arabian Peninsula that make up the remarkably varied habitat of Chamaeleo calyptratus. Instead, they are the result of many successive generations of captive breeding since pioneer herpetoculturist Ron Tremper first established this adaptable, omnivorous and prolific species in the American hobby.
Female veiled chameleons must be healthy with good body weight but not obese.
The Ideal Veiled Chameleon Breeding Setup
An all-screen enclosure is best for most chameleon species. The veiled chameleon is no exception; it will not tolerate overly humid conditions and airflow is essential. It also does best with a significant nighttime temperature drop, and the open-air environment of a screen cage will not retain heat and humidity into the night. A cage measuring 24 inches long, 24 inches wide and 48 inches tall is best for a large male or a pair of veileds, with smaller enclosures being appropriate for younger veiled chameleons or individually housing females. The cage should have numerous perches throughout, with cover provided by potted plants such as Ficus, Schefflera and pothos (Epipremnum spp.).
To prevent excessive moisture build-up and also eliminate potential ingestion hazards and places for feeder insects to hide, as well as facilitate cleaning, no substrate should be used. Illuminate the cage 12 hours a day with a UVB fluorescent lamp, and position perches so that the chameleon may rest within close proximity of this light for maximum UVA and UVB exposure. Additionally, an incandescent lamp must be used to create a basking spot that allows for thermoregulation. Basking spot temperatures should reach 95 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit with an overall daytime cage range of 80 to 90 degrees and a nighttime drop to 70 to 75 degrees.
The adult veiled chameleon is omnivorous, and both insects and plants comprise a healthy diet. Gut-loaded crickets of appropriate size (approximately the width of the head), dusted twice a week with a calcium supplement containing vitamin D3, may comprise the bulk of the insect diet, but silkworms, hornworms, superworms and roaches can be used weekly or biweekly to add variety for optimal health. Offer chopped dark greens (e.g., romaine, mustard, kale, endive) and other plants your chameleons prefer once or twice a week in an elevated dish. Accepted plants vary, and you should experiment to find your chameleon’s favorites. Flowers they like include dandelion (and its greens) and hibiscus. Fruits and vegetables relished by many veiled chameleons include apples, strawberries, raspberries, mangoes, papayas, carrots and squash. Many veiled chameleons will eat Ficus, pothos (Epipremnum spp.), and more rarely, Schefflera plants decorating their cages.
As chameleons rarely drink from a bowl, periodic misting is necessary to provide clean water. We mist older juveniles and adults once each day and ensure that hatchlings and young juveniles receive water twice a day. A drip system may also be employed. Droplets of water should fall and form on leaves where the chameleon may lap them up when thirsty.
Breeder Take Care
Chameleons are highly territorial and, except during mating introductions, are best housed both physically and visually separate. Two adult males must never be kept together. However, many breeders have had success housing veiled chameleons in male-female pairs, and for many hobbyists, this is their introduction to the chameleon breeding experience.
Factors to consider when housing a pair include: using the largest cage possible and providing plenty of cover, occasionally separating the pair to stimulate mating in complacent males, and ensuring that females recuperating after egg laying receive adequate nutrition. Whenever possible, house a female who recently laid eggs alone temporarily in a recovery cage, where she is free from food competition and the stress of cohabitation.
Our veiled chameleons are housed individually. This maximizes female health through lack of stress and feeding competition, and increases male mating interest by making female encounters periodic instead of frequent. Although each adult is housed alone, we divide up our large collection of adult veiled chameleons into “colonies,” with a group of seven female cages and two male cages located adjacent to each other. Although physically and visually separate at most times, receptive females from the group are introduced to each of the colony males for a few days. Once they display warning coloration, they are returned to their own cage. Through meticulous record keeping we can monitor the reproductive vigor of every male and female.
An unmated female is receptive every 10 to 15 days, and becomes receptive about 60 days after each oviposition (egg laying). At this time she exhibits passive mating coloration, with an emerald green body often with blue spotting down the back and occasional blue streaks on the casque, and she is placed in a male’s enclosure for a breeding attempt. If she is receptive to the male, she is housed with him for no longer than one day.
Only healthy veiled chameleons should be bred. Females should have good body weight, but not be obese. Suitable females generally weigh about 65 to 90 grams. Although females may reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months of age, they should be kept from males until they are closer to a year old. Early breeding often leads to difficulty in egg laying (dystocia) and early death.
A male first responds to an introduced female much in the way he would to a male entering his territory. His colors brighten, body compresses, throat expands, and his tail curls tightly. Recognizing the intruder as a potential mate, he approaches the female with deliberate swagger, his head jerking side to side. Once a male closes in on her position, a receptive female will retain her passive coloration and slowly crawl away. The male will follow her, often with closed-mouth nudges to her hindquarters, before he mounts her and aligns his cloaca with hers for hemipenal penetration. Mating usually lasts for several minutes and may be repeated one or more times throughout the day.
An unreceptive female will darken to blackish-green with blue and yellow lateral spots, flatten her body and rock in agitation upon encountering a male. She often will gape menacingly if he approaches. Mated females typically reject males and display this warning coloration 18 to 24 hours after successful copulation. This appearance is best-termed “warning” rather than “gravid” coloration, because it is only displayed in the presence of a male or, occasionally, another female. Unstressed, gravid females with revert to passive coloration. Females will continue to display warning colors to males until about 60 days after egg laying, when receptive mating coloration resumes.
Eggs are laid 20 to 30 days after mating, or 90 to 120 days after previous oviposition in females that double clutch from a previous mating. Females that are about to lay eggs become restless and usually cease feeding for one to four days. Once a female exhibits laying behavior, scratching at the cage floor or digging in the soil of a potted plant, she is removed and placed in a 2- or 5-gallon bucket, half-filled with soil. Some keepers prefer sand or a sand and soil mixture, and some prefer placing the laying box or bucket in the cage. The soil is moistened only enough so that it clumps and the female can dig a structurally sound tunnel to her egg-laying site. The bucket is covered with a screen and placed in a warm, dark corner of our breeding facility. As soon as the female is found sitting on top of the soil with her tunnel covered, noticeably thin from egg laying, she is returned to her cage and immediately offered water. The eggs are carefully dug up, and fertile eggs are placed in incubation containers. There is no need to worry about turning the eggs at this stage. The eggs are not formed to the point where changing orientation could cause harm.
Veiled chameleons lay clutches of 30 to 60 oval eggs (exceptionally, up to 80 or more for very large females) every 90 to 120 days. These eggs, which upon laying are 1 to 1.5 grams in weight and a little more than half an inch in length, begin developing in females before the females are 1 month old. Female veiled chameleons retain sperm and may produce a second clutch 90 to 120 days after oviposition, even if not mated again. However, there is some evidence that these unmated, double clutches result in weaker hatchlings.
We use shoebox-size, disposable food storage containers to incubate veiled chameleon eggs. No ventilation holes are added and the boxes are covered. Both vermiculite and perlite are suitable incubation media, but we prefer perlite mixed with tepid water in a ratio of 150 grams perlite to 120 grams water. We do not add additional moisture during incubation, so at hatching, about six months later, the incubation medium will be drier. The container is half-filled with the moistened perlite and eggs are set on their sides into the perlite, leaving about 40 percent of each egg’s surface exposed. The eggs are set in neat rows with about a half inch between each egg, and large clutches may need to be split into multiple egg boxes.
Egg boxes are placed on shelves in a walk-in closet-size room that is heated to a fairly constant 80 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, incubation lasts for 165 to 200 days. Egg boxes are periodically inspected and infertile, dead and moldy eggs are immediately removed.
During development, eggs will increase in size. Just before hatching, they will shrink slightly and begin to “sweat.” Whereas the clutches of many other chameleon species hatch over a period of several days, veiled chameleon eggs tend to hatch all at once if incubated in tightly spaced rows. Once they have pipped their eggs, the hatchlings remain inside for about 12 hours while they absorb remaining yolk. When they exit their eggs, they often rest in a curled position for a short time, but soon begin wandering about the egg box, ready to face the world.
Our hatchlings are placed into screen-covered, 66-quart, clear storage tubs in groups of 35. Each tub is filled with artificial plants and set on shelves beneath an incandescent basking lamp and a fluorescent tube that provides ultraviolet lighting. The following day, a routine of misting twice daily begins, and on the second day, food is offered for the first time. Food is offered daily thereafter. We place 2-week-old, gut-loaded crickets dusted with a vitamin and mineral supplement in a shallow dish. A branch is set into the dish so the crickets can slowly disperse, and feeding chameleons can sit above the dish and feed at will.
Once each week every single chameleon is weighed and sorted into tubs with same-size lizards in groups of 25 to 30, depending on size. Veiled chameleons weigh less than a gram at hatching, but within a week of feeding most will be 1.2 grams, while some vigorous siblings may surpass 1.5 grams. Size sorting ensures that food competition doesn’t result in weak hatchlings and allows larger babies to graduate to 3-week-old crickets for maximum growth and reduced feeding cost. Size sorting of very large groups (in our case, often 500-plus babies at a time) also has the secondary benefit of mixing bloodlines. Although we do not sort by sex, this can be easily done given that veiled chameleon males have prominent spurs on the back of their hind feet that are easily distinguished, even on hatchlings.
Once hatchlings weigh 2 to 2.5 grams, usually at 3 to 4 weeks of age under our optimal rearing conditions, they are ready for sale and are moved to screen enclosures in smaller groups. After they’re 3 to 4 months old, each requires its own individual enclosure.