Expert Care for the Meller’s Chameleon
We’re going to get a melleri today.”
I spoke those words to my husband Jeremy out of the blue one Saturday morning—well, they were out of the blue to him, but I had been scheming to get one of these fascinating chameleons ever since seeing one at a reptile show the month before, and I had just found out that a local store had one for sale. Little did I know what we were in for.
We’re the Meller’s
The Meller’s chameleon (Trioceros melleri) is a large and striking chameleon found in the mountainous areas of eastern Africa in the countries of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. Growing to an adult length of 2 feet or more, it is instantly recognizable by not only its large size but also the bright yellow and green coloring, scalloped dorsal keel, large occipital lobes and a single rostral horn. This horn, which gives them their nickname, “giant one-horned chameleon,” is often missing in captivity as a result of accident or injury during importation.
Black spots developing on a Meller's is symptomatic of the chameleon feeling threatened.
Like all true chameleons, a Meller’s chameleon has eyes that rotate independently, a long tongue that can shoot nearly the length of the chameleon’s body, a prehensile tail and feet with fused toes that allows the animal to securely grip branches as it climbs through the treetops within its native habitat. And of course it also has that famous chameleon color-changing ability. Popular culture leads us to believe this is for camouflage, but in reality chameleons change colors based on temperature, stress levels and, of course, males change colors to show off for potential mates and to intimidate the competition for those mates. When Meller’s chameleons feel threatened or fearful, their coloration undergoes a dramatic change. They become covered in black spots, and their green coloring darkens to nearly black. If the perceived threat remains, T. melleri will bring its occipital lobes forward, and begin to gape and hiss at the threat while swaying back and forth. It is a very impressive sight, but fortunately T. melleri in captivity are usually gentle giants, and while they do stress easily, they rarely threaten their keepers with such a display.
The Rigors They Endure
Unfortunately, nearly all the Meller’s chameleons found in captivity today remain wild-caught specimens, and getting them acclimated from the stress of capture and importation to the point of becoming gentle giants of a pet is a long and difficult road. Often called “the 90-day-chameleon,” T. melleri is known to be a difficult species to acclimate and keep over the long term. I may have fallen in love at first sight with this majestic animal, but I would quickly discover that the honeymoon would be short-lived and much work would be needed to ensure my first Meller’s survival.
The process of traveling from the treetops in Africa to our homes here in the U.S. is not an easy one for T. melleri. After the stress of capture and a long journey, often with very little, if any, food and water provided, a wild-caught chameleon will eventually arrive at a pet store, reptile show or other way-station before ultimately arriving at its final destination in our homes, and the care it receives and the amount of stress it endures will vary. No matter what, though, expect any T. melleri you bring home to be thin and dehydrated at the very least.
Water is the most critical element to keeping Meller’s chameleons successfully, whether your chameleons are fresh imports or long-term captives. They should be provided with at least three 20-minute misting sessions daily, but I provide an even longer one in the morning of about 45 minutes, as this seems to be when my chameleons drink the most.
The tongue of a Meller’s chameleon can extend almost the entire length of the chameleon, sometimes being longer than 2 feet.
An automated misting system is essential when maintaining Meller’s chameleons (I use an AquaZamp system). I have found it pretty much impossible to mist them sufficiently using a hand mister. Using a dripper is also an option, but I do not believe this is optimal for either drinking or providing adequate humidity. A misting system really is the way to go. Meller’s chameleons originate from a subtropical environment with humidity levels that range between 50 and 90 percent, depending on the time of day and season. Ensuring they have those same levels in captivity will help to keep them hydrated, ease shedding and encourage their appetite, too.
Healthy Food for Healthy Chameleons
Meller’s are large chameleons that can eat a great deal, and it is important to provide them with a healthy and varied diet. In the wild, they consume a variety of insects, including grasshoppers, flies, moths and beetles. Some have even been known to consume small lizards and birds.
You can feed pet Meller’s crickets, dubia roaches, silkworms, and praying mantises, to name just a few options. These large chameleons will also enjoy larger prey items and flying insects, too—favorites of mine include mantids, dragonflies and butterflies. Of course, care must be taken to ensure any prey items are not toxic and have not been in contact with pesticides.
Stress, temperature and showmanship can all contribute to the change in coloration in T. melleri.
Crickets and dubia roaches are the most commonly available prey items that are appropriate for Meller’s chameleons, and most keepers will feed these. The insects should be gut loaded, meaning they should be fed healthy greens, fruits and grains prior to being offered to your chameleon, so those nutrients can be passed on to your pet.
It is also important to dust feeders with calcium because a lack of it can lead to nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (also known as metabolic bone disease) and death. A multivitamin supplement should also be provided. There are a variety of calcium and vitamin products available and it is important to use the right ones and in the proper amounts. You do not want to overdose your chameleon, as T. melleri do not require as much supplementation as other lizard species, especially if their feeder insects are properly gut-loaded. Plain calcium a couple times a week and vitamins including D3 once a month is usually sufficient.
Hazards to Beware
Sometimes people get their new pet chameleons home only to discover that there are problems they didn’t notice or expect. Injuries, illness and parasites are all concerns. Care should be taken to very closely examine a chameleon you are considering purchasing, if possible. Look for injuries caused by capture and importation. Lost and/or infected toenails are common, and bites and scratches can also occur.
If your chameleon experiences a minor wound, keep it clean and treat it with a topical agent such as silvadene cream or my favorite, Vetericyn Hydrogel, which is an excellent all-purpose ointment for wounds. Of course, severe injuries and infections should be looked at by a veterinarian to determine a course of treatment.
Parasites are the biggest concern, as a heavy parasite load can lead to decreased appetite, increased dehydration and, eventually, death. A fecal examination should be done to determine the specific parasites and the level of infestation. I prefer to wait until the chameleon is stabilized before treating parasites to avoid further stress caused by administering the medication and the effect the medication may have on an already stressed animal’s system.
Stress is always a concern. A wild-caught Meller’s chameleon is already dealing with the stress of capture and importation, and continued stress will impair its immune system and lead to illness and death. Many things can cause stress, including improper temperatures and lighting, inadequate housing, being able to see people or other animals, and being handled or bothered too frequently.
Caging Versus Ranging
One of the best ways to combat stress is to provide a proper environment. Trioceros melleri need a lot of room, and the best thing for them is a free-range environment. Basically, this means setting up an environment just like you would in a cage—creating a temperature gradient, having proper UVB and basking lights, providing water and food that is easily accessed and plenty of foliage for cover. No, it’s not easy, these things can be a challenge to perfect in a cage environment and even more so in a free-range one.
Trioceros melleri do best in a free-range living environment, similar to the one pictured.
People who don’t have the space to provide a free-range situation, or who have cats, dogs or housemates that would make free ranging impossible, may need to provide a cage for their chameleons. I always suggest they buy or build the largest cage they can. It will likely have to be custom built, as there really aren’t any suitable ones on the market that I think would make proper enclosures for Meller’s chameleons as is.
Some people modify large bird cages or similar habitats, but the best option if you can’t have a free-ranging set-up is to provide your chameleon with the largest, most open cage you can. It should be at least 6 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide and deep. Its walls should be made of quarter-inch mesh rather than standard cage screening, as T. melleri often get their claws stuck in the screening, and if the mesh is too tight and they fall, their claws could be pulled out. Quarter-inch mesh allows them to climb without injury.
There are many different ways to set up a free-range environment for Meller’s chameleons, whether you have an entire room available or just part of a room. I use wire shelving units that are available at home improvement stores. I remove any middle shelves, leaving just a top and bottom shelf. Trees (Ficus, for instance) and other sturdy plants for the chameleons to climb upon can be placed on the bottom shelf and lights can be either on the top shelf or suspended from the ceiling above the unit. The misting nozzles can be attached to the top shelf as well, with pans positioned below to catch the water.
With a shelving unit such as I use, you can also cover the back and sides of it with plastic, if desired. This helps create a humid zone within the unit and also decreases the chance of water spraying on your walls. Quarter-inch mesh could be used rather than solid plastic sheeting, too, to maintain a semi-enclosed area and provide some additional climbing areas for the chameleons, as well.
Are there risks with keeping free-range chameleons? Of course there are. No matter how large and wonderful their free-range space may be, your chameleons will sometimes decide to go for a walk beyond it, and with wandering there is risk. They could be injured by other pets, such as dogs and cats, or by small children. They could come into contact with a variety of objects, from cleaning supplies to electrical outlets, which could cause injury or illness. They might even find their way out of an open door or window.
The best way to prevent these issues is to have a chameleon-safe room dedicated to your Meller’s chameleons that can be closed off from the rest of your home, so that any wandering on the chameleons’ part is confined to that room. These are large chameleons that need a great deal of space, and they like to move around their territory. They are calmer, happier and less stressed when not confined. In my experience, they do better in pairs or groups (though know that multiple males may fight), and having them in a free-range set up as described is optimal to allow this interaction. It helps ease the stress of acclimation for new arrivals, too.
Light and Heat
Whether your Meller’s chameleon is in a free-range setup or in a large enclosure, UVB light is a must. Exposure to UVB from either direct sunlight or a proper UVB light allows the chameleon to properly metabolize calcium in its system to keep its bones strong. There are a variety of quality UVB lights of different strengths available in pet stores and other places that sell reptile supplies. Commonly used bulbs include ReptiSun and ReptiGlo 5.0 bulbs, though in a large and/or heavily planted free-range setup it can be beneficial to use bulbs with a higher UVB output. Twelve hours on and 12 hours off is the usual light cycle, though this can be adjusted to mimic seasonal daylight hours.
It is also important to offer a heat gradient, so your chameleon can find its own comfort level by basking at different levels within its habitat. My T. melleri generally prefer cooler temperatures of 75 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit, but most will appreciate a warm basking spot maintained at 92 to 94 degrees. A 75- to 100-watt incandescent bulb is usually sufficient for this; place it outside the cage or out of reach above a perch in a free-range setup, to avoid burns. Turn off all lights at night, when cooler temperatures are beneficial.
My Meller’s Story
The day I told my husband we were bringing home a Meller’s chameleon, we did bring one home. It was a male, and he was thin and displaying a dark, stressed coloration. I knew he wasn’t in great shape but I was both naive and optimistic. I built a large cage for him; not having any experience with free-ranging animals, I went with what I knew.
Unfortunately, the day after we brought him home, he began showing signs of an upper respiratory infection and would not eat or drink. Sadly, he lasted only a few weeks with us, despite trips to the vet and antibiotics.
Despite this loss, our love of T. melleri did not die. I did more research, learned about the benefits of free-range setups, and set out to create such an environment. Once it was ready, we brought home another pair of Meller’s chameleons, and a few months later, we got a couple more. We continued adding to our colony, and eventually we had a group of 14 beautiful T. melleri.
We now had two free-range setups: one that was used as a quarantine area for new arrivals, and an expanded, room-sized living area for our existing chameleons. We even had a free-range nursery area for a couple small juveniles that we acquired.
Over the next couple years, we watched our gentle giants blossom. They were a friendly and inquisitive group. They welcomed visitors, as they knew we would offer them treats to show their long tongues in action. A couple of our Meller’s were even calm to the point that we could bring them to educational events where we introduced the public to chameleons.
Eventually, a couple of the females began to lay eggs. They were infertile, but we believed that we might soon be among the lucky few to get viable Meller’s chameleon eggs, resulting in some captive-bred babies.
Then one morning the unthinkable happened. A seemingly healthy chameleon died suddenly, without warning. It was one that we had for a couple years, long past the 90-day curse that is sometimes unfortunately associated with Meller’s chameleons.
A couple weeks later, it happened again, and the next three months became a nightmare. Even with vet visits, tests, and various medications, our chameleons kept dying. Eventually, we lost them all.
After this tragedy, we didn’t know if we should try again. We were scared, but our love of T. melleri won out. We eventually brought home another pair and, slowly, we added a few more. We now have five healthy, well-acclimated Meller’s chameleons.
I continue to gain knowledge about keeping these wonderful chameleons happy and healthy, and I help others do likewise. A species as remarkable and challenging as Trioceros melleri deserves nothing less!
Karen Venaas and her husband Jeremy work with several other chameleon species in addition to Meller’s, including veiled, panther, Oustalet’s and Jackson’s chameleons. They participate in many educational events to educate new and potential chameleon owners. Follow the adventures of The Chameleon Farm at facebook.com/thechameleonfarm.
The Meller’s chameleon makes a big impression—literally.
Many T. melleri are wild-caught specimens, meaning they can be difficult to acclimate and which has led to the nickname “the 90-day chameleon.”
Meller’s chameleons often arrive to their final destination dehydrated and stressed, but with proper care they can thrive for years.
Proper misting and humidity levels between 50 and 90 percent will ensure T. melleri stay properly hydrated and healthy.
With proper planning, Meller’s chameleons can be kept in groups. Pictured are some of the author’s animals.