Good health in in chameleons comes from a combination of environmental factors: the right temperatures, enough light, the presence of UVB, lots of water, and quality nutrition. We’ve talked about the other four up to this point, so it’s time to talk about feeding your Jackson’s chameleon.
How much do Jackson’s chameleons eat?
Prey items should be no larger than the space between your chameleon’s eyes. This ensures that they don’t choke by accident. Just like humans, lizards’ eyes are sometimes too big for their stomachs.
- Babies (1-3 months) — As much as they can eat, 2x/day
- Juveniles (3-6 months) — 10-12 small crickets/day
- Subadults (6-12 months) — 8-10 medium crickets/day
- Adults (over 1 year) — 6-8 medium or large crickets every other day
If you’re not sure how many bugs to offer after bringing your new chameleon home, it’s okay to put the bugs in a cup so you can count how many your cham will eat in one sitting. Babies have been known to eat as many as 20 pinhead crickets per day!
This is just a general rule to go by, based on averages. Use this as your template until you get a sense for your chameleon’s individual biorhythm and physical condition. Offer more bugs if your cham is losing weight, and fewer bugs if it’s gaining too much weight (adults only).
What do Jackson’s chameleons eat?
Jackson’s chameleons are insectivores, which means that they eat bugs. The above schedule uses crickets to establish a baseline, but the truth is that chameleons can (and should!) eat more than just crickets in order to achieve a balanced diet. In the wild, they eat primarily flying insects, bees, wasps, and small beetles. To view nutritional information on common feeder insects used in captivity, please see our article, “Feeder Insect Nutrition Facts for Reptile Keepers.”
- Flightless fruit flies (Drosophila hydei) — for babies only
- Black soldier flies and larvae
- Blue bottle flies and larvae
- Hornworms and sphinx moths
- Mantis hatchlings
- Roaches (banana, dubia, orange-head, red runner)
- Snails, preferably with shells
- Stick insects
- FUN FACT: Superworms contain cancer-fighting peptides, which makes them a super treat!
- ANOTHER FUN FACT: For the record, the whole thing about superworms chewing their way through a chameleon’s stomach is a MYTH! So crushing the superworms’ heads is unnecessary, and will only reduce your cham’s feeding response.
Avoid: Fireflies, wild-caught insects, newborn rodents
There’s no such thing as a “staple diet” for reptiles
The concept of a “staple diet” (offering the same food every day) is outdated; in the wild, chameleons get a varied diet, which is something we should strive to mimic in captivity. A varied diet is mentally stimulating, and key to helping your chameleon get balanced nutrition. A staple diet is like between eating grilled chicken and salad for every meal — it may be nutritious, but you get tired of it over time and you’ll probably end up with a nutrient deficiency.
Just like you take a daily multivitamin, reptiles need vitamin and mineral supplements too. But be careful: Jackson’s chameleons are evolved to make the most from of the poor nutrition available in their native habitat, so it’s easy to give them too much.
Most feeder insects have a high phosphorous to calcium ratio. I’ll spare you the detailed explanation (although if you do want it, go here) — in short, without extra dietary calcium to fix this ratio, a chameleon can get very sick. Fortunately it’s easy to correct this. Just throw your feeder insects into a plastic bag with a little calcium powder, shake them around, and dump them in your chameleon’s cage.
Just because your chameleon has a UVB light doesn’t mean that you should skip vitamin D3 supplementation. However, vitamin D3 is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that excess gets stored in your chameleon’s fat reserves rather than expelled as waste. To avoid accidental overdose, alternate between uses of calcium with D3 and calcium without.
Chameleon expert Bill Strand recommends the following supplementation schedule for Jackson’s chameleons:
On vitamin A: Vitamin A is a bit of a hot topic in the chameleon community. In the early 90s, a rash of vitamin A toxicity cases were found in captive chameleons, and as a result the entire reptile community switched to beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) in supplements rather than retinol, preformed vitamin A.
In 2003, “Chameleons and Vitamin A” was published, disproving the assumption that preformed vitamin A was a danger to captive chameleons, and asserting that it is actually necessary for optimum health. However, like the “vaccines cause autism” myth, widespread hearsay based on the initial scare means that many of today’s captive chameleons are vitamin A deficient. Despite this paper’s publication, many of today’s chameleons are vitamin A deficient.
It is yet to be found whether chameleons are capable of converting beta carotene to vitamin A, but studies and keepers have noted that beta carotene supplementation does not prevent vitamin A deficiency symptoms.
You may have heard people talk about the benefits of bee pollen. You may have brushed off their claims as “hippie nonsense.” But according to Petr Necas’ research (PDF), it’s a different story for chameleons: In the wild, chameleons ingest a lot of pollen. Their prey of choice — flying insects — are pollinators, heavily dusted with pollen from the flowers whose nectar they drink. As a result, no captive chameleon’s diet is complete without pollen supplementation.
Bee pollen contains a variety of key nutrients: amino acids, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, enzymes, fatty acids, and carbohydrates, as well as natural antioxidants and antibiotics. As a result, it boosts a chameleon’s immune system and acts as a natural multivitamin “supplement.” Unlike multivitamins, pollen should be provided with each meal.
Bee pollen can be purchased as either human-grade powder (usually in capsules) or granules. I like the Stakich brand granules and powder, which last for a long time if kept in a dark, dry place. Use it to gutload your feeders, feeder dusting, or even dissolving it in your chameleon’s drinking water. If you’re having trouble getting the pollen to stick to feeder insects, mix it about 50/50 with your usual calcium, and that should help it stick.
In the wild, a Jackson’s chameleon’s prey eats primarily fruits and leaves. The nutrients from those fruits and leaves then gets transferred to the chameleon when it eats a bug. By feeding your chameleon’s food the right food before feeding time, you can enhance their nutrient value and mimic what your cham would get in the wild. This practice is known as “gut-loading.”
Instead of relying on commercial feeder insect diets (which I find grossly inadequate in most cases), let feeder insects munch on nutritious foods like:
- Bee pollen granules
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Sweet potatoes
Let your chameleon hunt!
Did you know that the tongue is actually a muscle? A chameleon’s tongue measures 1.5x the chameleon’s length, with a fleshy tip and sticky saliva to grab insects. A healthy, “fit” tongue can reach full length in 1/16 of a second, and is thrilling to watch.
- (Bartlett, P., R. Bartlett. 1995. Chameleons: Everything about Selection, Care, Nutrition, Diseases, Breeding, and Behavior. Barrons.)
Resist the urge to make eating “easy” for your chameleon by always offering bugs in cups or tong-feeding. If a chameleon doesn’t have opportunities to hunt and capture its own prey, their tongue will wither away to become weak and useless. If it doesn’t have to stalk its prey, it will also get less exercise, and its overall health will suffer.
- PRO TIP: Like most insectivores, chameleons prefer their prey alive and moving. Movement stimulates their hunting instinct, so if your chameleon seems to have lost their appetite, try offering something that moves a lot.
- Introduction to Jackson’s Chameleons
- Jackson’s Chameleon Subspecies
- Shopping List
- Enclosure Size Guidelines
- Lighting & Temperature Requirements
- Humidity & Water Needs
- Enclosure Drainage Designs
- Environmental Enrichment: Decorating the Enclosure
- Feeding Your Chameleon (YOU ARE HERE)
- Taming & Handling Tips
- Common Illnesses & Other Health Info
- Additional Resources