The Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii) is a medium chameleon species originally from Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa. More recently, this species has been introduced and has established populations on most of the Hawaiian islands and some other areas. In its natural range, the Jackson's Chameleon lives in cool, humid mountain slopes with significant rainfall and vegetation.
Jackson's Chameleons are a mid-sized species, which are easily recognized by the three annulated horns of males like a Triceratops. There are three subspecies of Jackson's Chameleon: the Standard Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii jacksonii), the Mt. Kenya Yellow-crested Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus), and the Mt. Meru or Dwarf Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii merumontanus).
The Standard Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii jacksonii) is the rarest subspecies in the US. They are from Kenya and reach a total length of approximately 10 inches. Males have three horns while females can have a single horn on the nose or three like the male.
The Mt. Kenya Yellow-crested Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus) is the most common subspecies in the US. This subspecies is originally from Kenya but has been introduced to various places in the US, as previously mentioned. They can reach a total length of up to approximately 14 inches. Males have three horns while females typically have no horns but have been known to exhibit a single horn on the nose.
The Mt. Meru or Dwarf Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii merumontanus) is a fairly readily available subspecies but not as common as Ch. j. xantholophus. This subspecies is from Tanzania and reaches a total length of approximately 8 inches. The males have three long, narrow horns while the females have a single horn on the nose. This species typically has bright yellow crests.
All three subspecies have similar care requirements and adults typically exhibit a green coloration with darker patterning. This species is known to live upwards of 9+ years with females being slightly shorter lived then males. A common misconception with chameleons is that they are very difficult animals to keep in captivity. Fortunately, captive bred Jackson's chameleons purchased from a reputable breeder are actually quite hardy when provided with consistent care and a proper enclosure. In the past, it was difficult to obtain chameleons that were not wild caught. These wild caught chameleons are difficult to acclimate to captivity and often did poorly, even for experienced reptile keepers. Now that dedicated, reputable chameleon breeders are reliably producing high quality Jackson's chameleons, this stigma is no longer an issue.
Jackson's Chameleons do well in captive environments with consistent care but are more challenging to keep then either Panther or Veiled Chameleons. The first step toward successfully keeping your chameleon happy and healthy is to set up their enclosure. Jackson's Chameleons do best in screen sided enclosures because of the increased airflow. Glass tanks, on the other hand, are difficult to find in appropriate sizes and create stagnant air, which can lead to upper respiratory infections. With adult chameleons, the general rule is that bigger is better as far as their enclosure is concerned. Adults would ideally be housed in a screen enclosure around 18" x 18" x 3' tall, although they can tolerate somewhat smaller enclosures. Babies and juveniles can be kept in smaller screen enclosures (16" x 16" x 30") until they are approximately 10-12 months old, at which point they will need to be moved into a larger enclosure. If you are purchasing a baby, it is best to start with a small enclosure and then move up to a larger cage when the animal gets older. Finally, it is generally best to keep chameleons individually after they reach sexual maturity at around 10-12 months old to avoid potential stress and fighting.
The interior of the enclosure should be furnished with medium sized vines and ample foliage for the chameleons to hide in. The medium sized vines provide important horizontal perches for the chameleon to rest, bask and travel on. Synthetic plants with plastic leaves (not silk) can be used in conjunction with common, non-toxic plants to provide ample foliage. Commonly used non-toxic plants that can be used include Ficus, Schefflera, Hibiscus and Pothos. These live plants not only provide cover but they also help to maintain humidity inside the enclosure. The bottom of the enclosure should not have a substrate as substrates can cause impaction, provide a hiding place for feeders and harbor bacteria and fungus. Instead the floor of the enclosure can be kept bare or have a layer of paper towels, which should be changed regularly.
Jackson's Chameleons need two forms of light for approximately 12 hours a day. First, they need access to a light heat source to bask and regulate their body temperature. Heat rocks, heat tape, ceramic heat emitters, etc., do not provide chameleons with a heat source they recognize so it is important to provide them with a basking spot using a heat bulb and an incandescent fixture. Next, they need a special fluorescent bulb that provides UVB light waves. UVB, which is usually provided by natural sunlight, is important in calcium metabolism pathways but is filtered out by glass and therefore must be provided by artificial lights to help prevent disorders such as Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). As tempting as many bulbs that provide both UVB and heat may be, studies have shown that chameleons are able to regulate their body temperature and their UVB exposure independently so it is important to provide heat and UVB separately. Both these lights should be placed on the top of the enclosure with the closest perches approximately 8-10" below.
Jackson's Chameleons, like other reptiles regulate their own body temperature and it is thus important to provide them with a temperature gradient inside their enclosure. The best ambient temperature during the day for Jackson's Chameleons is fairly cool, between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. By placing the basking bulb approximately 8-10 inches away from a basking perch inside the enclosure, a basking spot of approximately 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit is achieved. This arrangement provides the warmest temperatures directly under the heat bulb and cooler temps lower down in the enclosures. Additionally, chameleons do well with a night temperature drop so no additional heat source is needed at night as long as your temps stay above the mid to high 40s and the chameleons are able to bask in the morning. If your night temperatures do necessitate a heat source, it is important not to use one that emits light. Instead, a ceramic heat emitter should be utilized from a safe distance.
Being arboreal, Jackson's chameleons do not typically encounter standing water such as a water dish. As a result, they typically do not recognize water dishes as a source of water for hydration. They drink water from morning dew and rain as it falls onto leaves. As a result, it is important to mist your Jackson's Chameleon with a spray bottle two to three times a day for approximately two minutes getting all the leaves and branches wet in the enclosure. Your chameleon will lap water up from the leaves. You can also create a drip system to provide water over a prolonged period. By taking a clean plastic water jug and poking a couple small holes in the bottom, water will slowly drip out over a period of time and fall onto leaves in the enclosure below. Finally, while waterfalls may seem like a nice addition to an enclosure and like they would help with humidity, chameleons are attracted to moving water sources to defecate. As a result, waterfalls quickly before cesspools filled with bacteria and can be extremely detrimental to your chameleon's health.
Jackson's Chameleons can be fed a staple diet of crickets. In general, crickets should be as long as your chameleon's head is wide. Newborn Jackson's Chameleons feed on fruit flies. Baby and juvenile Jackson's Chameleons should be fed once or twice a day and have almost constant access to food. As they get older, you can feed slightly less often with adults being fed every other day. It is important to supplement your crickets with calcium and vitamins (Reptivite) to help promote proper growth and health but care should be taken to not over do supplements. This is especially important for reproductive females and growing babies and juveniles. For babies and juveniles you will need to dust your crickets with calcium once or twice times a week and dust with vitamins once every two to three weeks. As adults, this dusting regiment can be decreased. It also helps to provide your crickets with nutritious food including collard greens, mustard greens, squash, orange and/or commercial cricket diets.
It is important to keep in mind that Jackson's Chameleons do best as primarily display animals. While different Jackson's chameleons will tolerate handling to different degrees based on their individual personality, Jackson's chameleons should not be handled like a bearded dragon. They can be carefully held for short periods but tend to get stressed with excess handling. With time you will learn what your Jackson's chameleon's personality is like and what your chameleon will tolerate. When you do handle your Jackson's chameleon, do not restrain it but rather let the chameleon walk on you from hand to hand. You should be aware that Jackson's chameleons are most comfortable when they are high up so often times when they are being held, they will attempt to walk up your arm and try to go onto your head. For long-term success with all chameleon species, limited handling is recommended.
With the proper setup and consistent care, your Jackson's Chameleon should do very well. The Jackson's Chameleon is a striking and beautiful captive, which is excellent for the moderately experienced chameleon owner. Their slightly more advanced care requirements, impressive features and odd behavior make them an interesting and conversation starting display for any dedicated enthusiast.