Today we explore the concept of co-habitation in chameleons. For the purposes of this podcast, co-habitation is more than one chameleon living together in a cage. This means keeping pair of chameleons together, growing siblings up together, or keeping a whole clutch of babies in a plastic bin. If the chameleons have physical access to each other it is cohabitation. By the end of this episode you will understand the “why” behind advice regarding co-habitation.
This is a great overview of chameleon biology which does go over the mate guarding behavior.
Here is the original piece I wrote 16 years ago on Co-habitation
To learn about the important parts of setting up a Chameleon cage.
To Learn about the social interaction of the Hawaiian Jackson’s Chameleons
To learn about maintaining a free-range set-up
To learn about chameleon body language and stress
Transcript of the Episode:
Cohabitation has been a hot topic since the beginning of chameleon keeping. And it has been discussed on this podcast a couple of times in the past with relation to stress and free range set-ups. But this is a topic that deserves its own episode where I compile all the information in one place. So some of this may be a refresher for the listeners that are subscribers to this podcast. Though there will be new information as well.
We humans like to pair things up. It is natural to us. We spend most of our lives looking for a partner and our movies, books, TV, songs, marketing ads and just about every aspect of our lives revolves around our interpersonal relationships. So much so, that it is hard to imagine another way to live.
We chameleon keepers have a special challenge. We have chosen to include in our lives a creature that looks at the world in a completely different way. We have taken responsibility to create a space where this alien creature can live and thrive. They have developed over the ages to be perfectly adapted to their environment with a social structure that has its nuances, rules, and communications just like ours has. It is a social structure that fits what they are. When you bring a chameleon into your life you have embarked on an incredible journey to understand a different life view of the world.
The first step in understanding chameleons is to consciously realize that what “feels right” and our instincts will lead us astray. Our instincts and feelings are tuned to human social structure. Within the human context, trust your feelings. Within the chameleon context, do not trust your feelings. You are starting from ground zero and have to relearn the rules. There is a deep conflict between what we feel is right as humans, and the chameleon way of life. This conflict comes to a head in two important ways. The first is in cohabitation and the second is in our projection of the love emotion on them. In this episode we will explore the first – cohabitation. We will do this by learning about the chameleon social structure, acknowledging our social structure, and then discussing how those two can co-exist.
So, chameleons…what do our good reptilian friends think of each other? First of all, there are a plethoraspecies of chameleons and they have variations on lifestyle and territorial nature. So I will be speaking in generalities. Generally speaking, our standard chameleons have a very loose social structure. A male will have a certain territory. How big that territory is and how aggressively he defends it varies with species. The Jackson’s, Veiled, or Panther Chameleon males can be spectacular in their clashes. Injury, or rarely, even death can be part of this battle. Though, usually it is just a posturing battle and then the loser runs away and finds another bush.
Females can move between trees. But in all of this there is an understanding. Everyone has their branches where they can get sun and feel safe from predators. They can be found in the same tree, but they are not usually found near each other. This changes with both species and population density. Trioceros hoehneli is reported to be more comfortable in close proximity than, say, Trioceros jacksonii – the Jackson’s Chameleon.
When mating season hits males are known to roam to find mates. So there can be an ebb and flow in population amongst the bushes when mating season hits. And, whenever they meet they establish who gets the right of way and who gets to run away. Male Veiled Chameleons are reported to sit at the tree top flashing their colors to other males in other tree tops while the females and young males inhabit the insides and lower levels of the trees. In episode 33, Mary Lovein reported on the social structure of the Jackson’s Chameleons in Hawaii how there would be groups in the trees. This doesn’t mean they were hanging out with each other, there was a distinct personal space that was required. I have a field report from Mozambique with Trioceros melleri, the Meller’s Chameleon. They can be in the same tree, but they keep a distance away from each other. So we can make some generalizations in their social system.
Mating season deserves some discussion as this is when they do get close to each other and sometimes stay close. So, when mating season comes the males look for females and the females pass judgement on the males. We see a behavior called mate guarding in many species of chameleons. This is where the male will mate with the female and sometimes female-s and then stand guard to ensure that no other male comes in and adds his genetics to the mix. A 2001 study determined that Chamaeleo chameleonwas more aggressive in defending the larger females so they do recognize a priority structure with the female producing more young being guarded more. While the more romantically inclined humans may see this as pair bonding, the truth of the intention of the males has little to do with affection for the female. Another study saw that pairs of certain chameleons, including the Jackson’s Chameleon, stay together for months before going their separate ways. There is a nice chapter by Devi Stuart-Fox in the book Biology of Chameleons that summarizes the handful of studies that describe the mate guarding behavior. The main take away for us is that when we include another chameleon in the mix we introduce a complicated social interaction that changes with the seasons
So when you hear the phrase that chameleons are solitary animals, know that that is a gross oversimplification. They have a rich social structure that they all understand perfectly. It is just very different than human social nature and sometimes oversimplification is necessary in this world. The important piece to communicate is that, unlike humans, a pet chameleon will have a long healthy life without ever seeing another chameleon. In fact, it is when you bring another chameleon into their life that we introduce a whole new range of complications that are not necessary for their physical or mental health. So it isn’t inaccurate to have a solitary mindset when considering how we will keep them in captivity. So, yes, there are many layers of understanding here.
Now, how does all of this affect us keeping chameleons in captivity. If we keep one chameleon it isn’t that hard. They want their basking branch, the four gradients (see episode 1), and a good place to feel safe sleeping. Pretty simple. That gets turned on its head when you introduce another chameleon into the same space. You now have all of those social interactions that we just discussed happening in the space of your cage. If you remember, a chameleon’s loose social structure includes a great deal of space between individuals. Even when they are in the same tree they want their space from each other. If, for whatever reason, they do get close they are entering into a tolerance of each other which, when either has had their fill they will fight for their space or go find another space. To have a healthy social interaction you need to provide the space necessary for chameleons to go through all the steps and nuances of their social interaction. This can only be done by giving them a tree top or two to act out their social behaviors. Otherwise things get seriously messed up because they cannot exhibit the behaviors required by their social rules. And chameleons cannot talk it out, make allowances for reduced space, and find a middle ground.
The first thing chameleons do when they come in contact is establish a pecking order. Who gets to eat first. Who gets their choice of basking branches. If one is larger and the other accepts their secondary status then there is a peace and the primary gets the first choice of everything. But this means one will be healthier than the other. And, here is the insidious part, there will be constant reminders of who is in charge. They can’t just decide and then go on with life. Every day that the second in line grows and considers whether they want to be in charge the alpha male or female has to defend their position. So there is a constant stress on both as they are jockeying for position. Some are pretty dramatic about it. They gape, they posture, they flatten out. They fight. Others do it silently and it is actually difficult to see that it is going on unless you know what to look for. Jackson’s Chameleons are notorious for not giving obvious signs of stress. Well, until they suddenly for “no reason” get a respiratory infection and die. The problem is that their way of quietly dealing with their problem is so subtle that Jackson’s Chameleon keepers actually think they are happy. If you are a new keeper to Jackson’s Chameleons please listen. You may think they love you. You may think they love their cage mate and are doing just fine. It is months later that we are all on social media trying to pinpoint the reason for failing health when your husbandry is “perfect”.
So what is going on is that your two chameleons are spending their days struggling with the chameleon social structure. You just do not have the amount of space in your cage necessary for them to play out their social communication. Part of the reason why chameleons can be in the same tree in the wild is because they can easily get away from each other when necessary. And here is my sound bite that you will hear over and over because it perfectly encapsulates the situation. Cohabitation does not work – not because chameleons can’t be around each other- but because they cannot get away from each other. And this isn’t solved just by providing visual cover. When they are in this battle they seek each other out. They will find each other. The dominant one will deliberately take the smaller one’s food. They will crawl over each other. The dominant one will perch next to the submissive to remind them of the structure. This is where humans think it is cute that they love each other so much that they sleep next to each other. It is like the teacher looking out the window commenting on how well you and your bully share your lunch. You must be great friends. And here is the base problem. In chameleon language, you win the debate when the loser leaves your area. In the wild, the loser just goes to the other side of the tree and life goes on. In a cage, the loser never leaves. So the winner never wins. By removing the ability for the chameleons to leave the area we are messing up their ability to communicate within their defined social structure. This introduces stress, which, over time, degrades the immune system and lets in an infection of some sort and can easily end up killing the chameleon. I wish I was being overly dramatic. But we see this progression happening all the time. If the course is not changed it leads to death of one and the weakening of the other who spent so many months winning the argument. Most people don’t catch this because they don’t know the signs of trouble and worse, misinterpret the signs they do see as positive relationship signs. Even if two are together and they have established a pecking order that both agree on – things change. As they grow in size, the younger and smaller one day starts questioning why they are the #2. As seasons change and internal urges for mating pop up the whole process starts again. Every day is a different day.
So why do we do it? It is not like anything I am saying is new. In fact, any intrepid google researcher will find an article in the Chameleons Ezine by me 16 years ago saying something suspiciously similar. And then another article by me on the Dragonstrand.com website five years ago with not a lot changed. And then podcast episode 6 on stress four years ago. And yet, one look at social media shows that our desire to put chameleons together in a cage is alive and going strong. Why?
Well, because we are pack animals. That is what we know. We are not happy until we have someone in our life and we are not happy until the people we love have someone in their life. And then we create a community around us of more individuals. We feel safe and secure when we are in a group. Even people who want to be seen as individuals want people around them to recognize their independence. This community structure is so ingrained in us that we don’t even consider that that is a pack animal mentality and that not every animal is a pack animal!
Pack animals have such a strong drive to create communities because that is how we survive. Humans are miserably ill equipped to last on the Savannah. Our only saving grace is our brain and working together in groups. Wolves and lions have discovered this as well. But tigers and bear have discovered the solitary lifestyle works for them. It really is species dependent. But this is why dogs make such great pets. They understand the same social structure as we do. They make social bonds very similar to ours so we as species understand each other. Touch means the same thing to them as it does to us. Napping together is a sign of trust and bonding. We both agree on the meanings of these actions. With chameleons, if your chameleon naps on your hand the experienced community all goes crazy talking about vet visits and figuring out what is wrong before the chameleon is dead. Two totallydifferent worlds!
So when you consider a chameleon and you want to put two in a cage together, consider why.
Now, let’s be fair, a huge number of cohabitations start with the pet store owner or reptile show vendor telling you it can be done. They have done it for six months and everything is fine. Or else “this is a bonded pair”. This all comes from greed or ignorance. Although it is very frustrating to have this debate still I don’t want to demonize the people who say that, for example, Jackson’s Chameleons can be housed together. With all the misinformation out there how can someone that deals with 50 species of animals be expected to know more than the surface level of each one? How deep did you have to dig before you found this podcast? And you are dedicated to chameleons so are willing to listen to 45 minutes of chameleon radio – once a week. Every single animal on this planet is as uniquely suited for their environment and has a unique social structure. You would need to listen to 100 podcast episodes on each species to really get each down. How many pet store owners or even reptile vendors at shows will put in that kind of effort? So if you are coming to this podcast after getting a glass of cold water splashed on you that everything the guy selling the chameleons told you was suspect then all I can say is I am sorry it is like this. The people selling these chameleons are often not knowledgeable. They are telling you what they know. They don’t usually know what is wrong. It has worked for them. Without a reference, it is very hard to tell what information is good.
And, you are not alone if this is new. Every week there are people that are newly exposed to the depth of what is required to take care of chameleons. It may be overwhelming to suddenly break into this new world, but I will say it is exciting that there is so much good information available! I know it is hard to tell the difference. But, at least you are here now. Sure, I am just another guy from the digital age, but I commit to you that I will explain why I say what I say and you can verify it in anyway you feel necessary. In fact, I encourage it. I would rather you not go around saying you are doing something because I said it. I work pretty hard to explain why I say things! Think about what I say, make it make sense in your own mind, and then it is yours. You then do not have to reference anyone else.
And because there is never black and white and it can never be easy, let’s discuss exceptions and false exceptions.
- Many breeders, including myself, have found that raising chameleons together from hatching produces chameleons that seem to be able to live in the same space peacefully – at least for a little while. When raised up since birth they tend to grow into their pecking order. We need to be careful though. Because as they grow their bodies are changing and their hormones are developing. Things change and one day they may not do so well. I once had four panther chameleon brothers raised together that appeared to live in harmony. They did this until they colored up and went to new homes. But I would never recommend counting on this to happen. It can go horribly wrong. And I am going to bring in a bizarre development that is, admittedly, new to me. There seems to also be a mental health aspect to this. Apparently, siblings can even develop an unhealthy dependence on each other. It is rare, but I have come across a handful of cases now where siblings raised together would only eat when they were with the other. They would take this to the extreme where they would refuse to eat unless the other was there to the point of losing weight. If you find yourself in this situation I am going to strongly suggest you not view this as sibling love and do what it takes to break them of this unhealthy relationship. When I first heard about this in female Jackson’s Chameleons I thought it was a fluke. But when I heard about another case, and then another, it got concerning. If you have encountered this situation with two sibling female Jackson’s Chameleons – or any other chameleon – please email me and share your experiences. I would like to get to the bottom of what is going on. As for how to break them of this, I have brought on Alycia Lowe, who is a moderator on the Jackson’s Chameleon Community Facebook group and we discussed the situation and what she finally did to solve the issue <At this point I brought on Alycia who shared her story>. So, what do we make of this? And why are we seeing this dynamic now? People have kept Jackson’s Chameleons together despite best practices for decades. Maybe it is just that I am hearing about it now and it has been happening all along. I don’t have an answer on that just yet. But this is another example of how complex the emotional state of our chameleons is. I am sure some of you remember my experience where I had a male that grew up with a dominant female and he was so friendzoned that there was no way I was going to get a breeding. Even after separation they both remembered the pecking order. So I brought in a mirror and pretended to be another male competitor. When he gave any sort of response I would make the male in the mirror run away. After a couple of weeks he got his confidence back. Scaring away every male in the jungle did something for his self-esteem. When I placed him in with the female after that he put on a stellar performance which resulted in a successful mating. The point is, that you have two examples here of emotional issues having to be resolved. These just happen to be because of co-habitation, but the deeper realization here is that this is a complex creature we are dealing with. Now, going back to the situation where the two females were locked in whatever relationship they had, Alycia reports that this did not happen with the other babies that grew up in the same conditions. So the mystery deepens a little more. What was it with these two? It was obviously unhealthy because they were not acting like chameleons should, but you could almost ask why mess with what they had if they were eating and growing? The answer is that they weren’t acting like chameleons should act. It is hard to tell how that would have played out long term, but with the report that once they were separated successfully that they went on to exhibit expected chameleon behavior I think it is clear that this condition, if you ever run into it yourself, is worth breaking up.
- The second case is with females. Cohabitating males is generally not a hard thing to convince people not to do. But females can be kept together much easier. It does work, with enough space, to keep females together, but there is still a pecking order and bullying that does go on. It can be at a deeper level, especially with calmer species. This is one of those situations where you can get away with it because they aren’t as aggressive, but you still have to watch out for trouble. In my view, if you have to watch out for trouble you are in a compromise situation and you shouldn’t be doing it. We put chameleons in compromise situations for our own benefit. We want more chameleons in a smaller space. We want a large breeding group without spending more money for cages. If you do this compromise then acknowledge that you are engaged in a compromise and take the precautions necessary to make it work. I won’t go over how to make an unnecessary compromise work as this podcast is about propagating the best practices. It can be done. I have done it. But at no time will I ever say it is best practices.
- And this brings us to keeping babies together. When chameleons hatch or are born they immediately disperse. They hatch at the same time to increase the survival rate of the whole clutch if there are predators in the area. And they disperse as quickly as possible. So they are growing up alone. They may see each other, but there is no teamwork going on here. From time to time you can find pictures of a huge clump of babies sleeping on the end of a branch. Our human emotions consider sleeping together as a form of deepest trust so it is cute to us looking through human eyes. But those claws on chameleons are not meant for caressing. They are meant for digging in and holding on their sleeping branches during windy nights. Babies stacked on top of each other is not an affectionate thing. They are being driven by similar instincts and, will sometimes find the same spot – especially in an enclosed environment. This is not proof they should be raised together. Some clutches are calm and some want to rip each other’s throats out from the beginning. But they all will start their pecking order behavior to some level. Whether it comes out as crawling over each other, stealing each other’s food, or just shadowing each other, you will get dominance behaviors coming out. It is well known that raising babies in groups can often result in bites and nipped tails. It is well known that you need to separate them according to size or the smaller ones will whither away. Once again, when we have to put all this effort into making it work that screams that it is a compromise. So, yes, we do it. But we do it because we don’t have the space or money for caging to do it right. It is not for the good of the babies that we do it. It can work and it can work acceptably well. But it is not best practices. If you are going to have babies, chances are good that you will not be able to keep them all separately. But prepare as many containers as possible to be able to separate them out as much as is possible.
- Let’s go on to pygmy chameleons. Most pygmy chameleons have a low aggression towards each other. And it is even reported that they do better breeding in small groups where there can be some male competition. So this becomes an exercise for you as the keeper to figure out how large of a vivarium you need to allow their social behavior to play itself out. Remember, any chameleon can be cohabitated if you give the members enough space to act out within their social structure. You can keep male veiled chameleons together if your enclosure is big enough for two mature acacia trees. That is just the size of what they need to work within the social behavior they have developed. So if you have a pygmy chameleon species that has a complete social behavior that can function within a vivarium that fits in your room then you can do it. There are precious few people that have worked extensively with any pygmy chameleon species so finding information about the particular species you are considering may be difficult. But you have to look at this whole chameleon thing as a quest where you need to search for hidden nuggets of wisdom. You, most likely, will have to dig to find the gold.
- The last exception is with exceptionally large caging. So let’s go back to what I said about two acacia trees in an enclosure. There have been successful groups kept together. I have, before, reported on a group of dwarf jacksons chameleons that were thriving in a large densely planted outdoor aviary. Densely planted green houses could provide enough space. Each species will need a different amount of space depending on their genetic programming. Some people have tried to accomplish this in a room of their house. We call this a free range. As cool as it sounds to live with your chameleons, this takes a great deal of effort, planning, and tweaking to work. And often even it is not big enough for the number of chameleons people like to put together. I have only rarely seen free ranges that can work long term. If this is in your interest then you can check out episode 24 of this podcast where we talk to someone that did it and we have an honest and frank discussion about the pros and cons.
Now let’s look at the other side. Could there be social interactions that are healthy? And this is a tricky question. I would say, yes, interaction with their own kind is natural in the wild. Whether it is necessary to produce a healthy chameleon in captivity is another question. The data and evidence I have seen is not conclusive. The opinions run high. Some say that you have to socialize your baby chameleons or else they won’t know how to mate properly. My veiled chameleons were raised individually and they had no problem mating and when the female was gravid she had no problem telling the male and he backed off. So I could not recreate this reported dysfunction. There was a study that noted that the feeding response and aggression in singly raised chameleons was much lower than group raised chameleons. It was a strange study because it came to conclusions but did not judge the value of those conclusions. For example, a slower feeding response in individually raised chameleons? Sounds like a positive to me. Eating when you are hungry rather than because you fear your food could be taken away sounds like a good thing to me. But the practical application of this was lost on me. None of my individually raised chameleons across multitude of species ever forgot how to eat. They all grew up to an acceptable size without instilling a sense of urgency to eat beyond what they already have programmed inside of them. My veiled chameleons had a healthy enough appetite and would eat anything in sight even though they didn’t have to fight for their food. As the epidemic of obesity in pet chameleons is alive and well I am hard pressed to find the problem that needs solving here. And then aggression. If you are having a pet chameleon what value is there is making sure it can fight other chameleons off? I am not aware of any emotional issues in captive chameleons that will be solved by juvenile socialization. But, hey, if anyone wants to put in the effort to show a true, re-creatable positive I am all ears. This hobby is all about going deeper and learning more.
One point where people argue it is a good idea that babies that are raised with some sort of interaction with each other are better breeders. On this I have heard many conflicting opinions on this. I’d like to save that discussion for later. What interaction they need to produce breeding behavior will need to be both tested and then challenged. See, we in the community are very good at observing something happen, interpreting it, and preaching it. It is rare that I see anyone with these ideas actively explore how to disprove their idea and try to disprove it before preaching it. But, this level of discussion is beyond what I want to touch on in this podcast episode. The point is that if there is a positive to interaction between chameleons it is subtle enough to be difficult to define. And if there is a positive it is most likely a positive that can be given by putting chameleons in visual range of each other rather than in the same cage as each other so it likely not to affect the decision as to whether we should co-habitate chameleons or not.
It is well known that chameleons looking at each other from across the room get used to each other and accept that each has their own bush. So even male Veileds and panthers will accept seeing each other across the room. But, going back to our test for success – does this allow them to exercise their ingrained social structure? The answer is yes. The male is effectively on another tree and they are not meeting in the middle. They can communicate and there is no breach of chameleon etiquette that cannot be rectified within the set-up.
So, let’s wrap this up. The unmistakable bottom line is that the best husbandry approach is one chameleon per cage. Everything else is a compromise. There are assumptions in every simplification. The assumption in this statement is that your cage is not big enough to allow the full range of social interaction in the chameleons you are keeping. With 95% of the cages available and 99% of the chameleons available at any given time this axiom will hold true. You will be much happier and your chameleon will be much happier if you follow the one chameleon per cage rule.
This is one of the first challenges we humans hit when on our chameleon journey. As we tackle each one of these differences in world view we develop our chameleon instincts. The more we develop these instincts the more we can start to trust our feelings again because they have been tuned into the chameleon wavelength. There is no shortcut. This takes time, study, and practice. Time will just happen whether we want it to or not. The study material here. So now it is just you practicing over and over. Test, challenge, learn, do better; try again. Believe me. We all had to do it. And just like anyone who has been around for a while, you just keep plugging away. And it won’t be long before it starts working for you. The secret is simple – you never stop.
Thank you for joining me here on this episode for a look into co-habitation. I am hoping with this explanation and insight you can now understand the “why” behind the one chameleon per cage rule. You truly understand the rule when you understand the limits of the rule. And now you know the limits of the no cohabitation rule. I much prefer a community that understands why the advice is given. The motto of this podcast is Learn. Understand. Pass it On. Learning is the “what”. In this case, one chameleon per cage. Understanding is knowing the “why” so well that you know when the rule is not needed. Once you understand, that is when you are 100% effective in passing it on. That is when you can help others who are on your same path up the mountainside to enjoy these incredible views.