Fun Fact: Chameleons Don’t Need Substrate

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“Substrate” is a fancy word for your Jackson’s chameleon’s bedding, the stuff that goes on the floor of the enclosure. In most reptile enclosures, substrate is typically an organic material like cypress mulch, aspen shavings, organic topsoil, coconut fiber, etc. Other reptile keepers prefer solid substrates like paper towels, tile, etc.

Due to the fact that chameleons essentially need their own artificial weather pattern inside their enclosure, the typical approach to substrate doesn’t provide the drainage necessary to get rid of all the excess water. Fortunately, since chameleons are arboreal, substrate isn’t necessary to their wellbeing. So instead of the usual substrate discussion, we need to talk about drainage systems.

Drainage for Jackson’s Chameleons

Automatic misting systems, foggers, drippers, pressure sprayers, and various combinations of the above leave typical substrate options a sodden mess. Aside from being unpleasant to clean up, standing water at the bottom of your cham’s cage accumulates poo, urate, and dead feeder insects, leading to a smelly, bacteria-ridden bog. Your priority, then, is having an efficient method of eliminating this standing water.

Many chameleon keepers don’t even bother with substrate, opting instead for a drain at the bottom of the enclosure. Unfortunately, this does mean you’ll have to get a little crafty. I’m not particularly proficient at crafting (just ask my husband), so I’ll let the experts explain:

    • This thread from Chameleon Forums is an easy DIY drainage system modified from a substrate tray.
    • If that doesn’t appeal to you, Chameleon Forums has another helpful thread that features several alternative DIY ideas from a variety of cham keepers in the community. Some of these projects are so simple, even I could do it!
    • If your chameleon’s enclosure is a custom build, Olimpia Martinotti’s homemade drainage table might be a better (and more attractive) fit for your needs.
    • I highly recommend listening to the Chameleon Breeder Podcast’s discussion on drainage options: Episode 10: Chameleons & Drainage.
    • This video:

Placing potted live plants in the enclosure can help prevent wasting water, as well as creating natural climbing opportunities, drinking stations, and lovely bright green décor for your enclosure. But more on that on the next page.


Keep reading:

  1. Introduction to Jackson’s Chameleons
  2. Jackson’s Chameleon Subspecies
  3. Shopping List
  4. Enclosure Size Guidelines
  5. Lighting & Temperature Requirements
  6. Humidity & Water Needs
  7. Enclosure Drainage Designs (YOU ARE HERE)
  8. Environmental Enrichment: Decorating the Enclosure
  9. Feeding Your Chameleon
  10. Taming & Handling Tips
  11. Common Illnesses & Other Health Info
  12. Additional Resources