Why Chameleons Turn Black: How Not To Worry When They Do

  • By: Dave

The first day I got my chameleon he did something that absolutely terrified me. I literally thought he had died! What was that thing he did? He turned black and just dropped off his perch onto the bottom off his enclosure! I freaked out! But it turns out, as so often when I had my chameleon, I needn’t had worried quite so much.

Why do chameleons turn black? Chameleons turn black for four main reasons. They’re either cold, stressed, scared or a combination of these.

While you can’t always prevent chameleons from turning black there are ways you can make them more comfortable and reduce the number of times it happens. Read on to find out what situation applies to your chameleon and how you can prevent it.

Black Chameleon Because Of Stress

Chameleons can get stressed pretty easily and this is something that needs to be avoided as too much stress can have severe implications for their health and cause them to suffer many illnesses.

If it’s general stress it’s usually to do with their environment inside the enclosure and they will show it’s general stress by turning black fairly regularly and for no immediately obvious reason.

Check this list and see if any of it applies to your chameleon:

  • Enclosure is too small – A chameleon needs to have plenty of height to climb up and away from potential predators in the wild. If they don’t have the opportunity to climb higher than your head and look down at you they will constantly feel a sense of threat because a predator in the wild will likely attack them from above.
  • Lack of places to hide – Chameleons are very cautious animals and their defense relies mainly on stealth and hiding rather than attacking. As such they are extremely good at hiding and blending into their surroundings, even though they don’t change color to match their surroundings.

    I lost count of the amount of times I couldn’t find my chameleon in his enclosure, even when he was fully grown! If you don’t provide enough cover to help them hide they will feel the same sort of threat they would feel if their enclosure is too small.
  • Lack of plants – In order to hide chameleons will need lots of plants. Not only that they need lots of plants for climbing and sleeping on. Their natural habitat will be covered in plants so you need to replicate this in captivity. Without this, they will be scared and feel exposed which is another reason they turn black. Read about what plants are good for them in my comprehensive guide here.
  • Insects left in the enclosure – Some insects left in overnight can really bother a chameleon, particularly crickets and locusts. Crickets will even bite your chameleon while it sleeps and locusts especially will crawl on them at times. Being bitten by bugs and having them crawl on me stresses me out too so it’s little wonder your chameleon would feel the same.

Chameleon Turned Black Because They’re Scared

This does come under the heading of stress but it deserves its own section as any fear they may feel is more to do with things outside of its enclosure rather than stress caused by things inside it.

  • Too many people in the room – This largely depends on how many people live in your household. I lived alone when I had my chameleon so he was used to seeing me every day and wasn’t particularly bothered by my presence.

    However, whenever somebody new entered the room he would turn dark and follow that person with his eyes all around the room. When more than one other person entered the room, like when my family visited, he would turn almost jet black and his eyes would bulge right out of his head.
  • Your chameleon feels cornered – This happens mainly when you enter their enclosure and they’re lower than you, not hiding or you literally corner them without thinking. This will either make them turn black or go the other extreme of full bright colours and lashing out at you.
  • Other pets bothering them – This mainly applies to dogs and cats. Of course, many people have more than one pet, dogs and cats being the most popular, but a dog getting too close to a chameleon will likely terrify it. As will other chameleons and lizards. Housing them with other lizards is a definite no and, although possible, I wouldn’t even think of housing them with another chameleon until you are much more experienced in keeping them and have lots of space to do this.
  • Other chameleons bothering them – It’s unlikely you’ll be housing more than one chameleon together unless you are breeding chameleons or are more experienced but seeing other chameleons can cause a great deal of stress for them and will make them turn black.

    Housing babies with adults is a definite no as some adults will eat smaller chameleons given the chance. I personally wouldn’t recommend housing chameleons together unless you’re more experienced or have a huge enclosure to give each one space.
  • Can see out of the window – If your chameleon is housed near a window or can see out of one this can cause them stress, especially if it’s near a busy road or looking out onto a garden where they can see birds. Ultimately this is unlikely to bother them too much but it’s worth keeping in mind.

    I do remember once incident when my chameleon freaked out hissing because he saw a bird out the window. Birds are a main predator of chameleons in the wild so it’s not surprising they would be scared.

Black Chameleon Due To Being Cold

Chameleons need a basking spot to get and keep warm and they need space to regulate their temperature away from the heat source. If your chameleon is too cold they will turn dark to absorb more heat. Think of it in the same way a black t-shirt absorbs more heat from the sun than a brightly colored one.

Check the temperature of the basking spot and ambient temperatures of the rest of the enclosure using a digital thermometer. What temperature is required depends on the species you have but roughly around the mid 90s Fahrenheit for basking and late 80s down to 70s as you get lower down the cage.

How To Prevent Your Chameleon Turning Black

Hopefully, by now you should have a better idea of what’s making your chameleon turn black. While it’s difficult to prevent it all together you can take some steps to reduce the likelihood of it happening.

  • Lower room traffic – Obviously you can’t be expected to move your chameleon every time you have people around but if you live in a busy house or you often have lots of visitors then, if possible, consider moving them to a more quieter room with fewer people coming and going.
  • Raise the enclosure – A chameleon’s enclosure should be around six feet tall and raised off the ground on a table so your chameleon can get higher than you and feel safer. Make sure they have enough vines and plants to climb on to achieve this.
  • Plant well – Make sure there are lots of leaves and branches around the middle section of the enclosure so your chameleon can hide. This will help them adapt better and feel less threatened if you do have them in a busy room.
  • Remove uneaten insects – This will give your chameleon a better rest at night and reduce the chances of infections from insect bites. Cup or hand feeding will avoid this problem altogether.
  • Pick your moment – Wait until your chameleon is basking above you or well hidden and not cornered before going into the enclosure to clean, feed or water. That way they won’t feel frightened and cornered.
  • House away from a window – This has the double value of preventing your chameleon from seeing potential threats outside and keeps it away from any possible drafts that may interfere with temperature regulation.
  • Increase the wattage – If you suspect your chameleon is cold increase the wattage of the basking bulb or, if this is OK, consider moving your chameleon’s basking spot a little closer and try moving the bulb so the spot of the light beam is exactly on the branch so your chameleon can soak up the heat through its back, exactly as it would do so in the wild.

What if your chameleon turns black and drops to the floor?

Do not panic if this happens! As I mentioned at the beginning, my baby chameleon did this on the first day I got him and I was terrified! This is a natural response chameleons do when they are scared, especially babies. If they do this the chances are it was a result of you or someone else just being naturally curious and look at your chameleon while standing too close.

Related article: Caring For Baby Chameleons

After an hour or so just check to make sure they’re ok, chances are they’ll be back near their basking spot and waiting to be fed.

Conclusion

Hopefully, after reading this you’ll have a better understanding of why chameleons turn black and you’ll know not to panic when you see it happen.

Determine whether it’s fear, stress or being too cold that’s causing them to turn black and adjust your chameleon’s immediate environment with the tips I’ve provided. Any questions leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

  1. Hi so I got my chameleon a few days ago and she hasn’t eaten anything. She is a female Jackson’s chameleon who is around 4-5months old in age. Is there something I should try so that she eats maybe switch her food? And she also hides whenever I come over. If there’s anything I can do to help her please let me know.
    Thanks

    1. Hello Charlotte,

      It’s normal for a chameleon not to eat anything the first few days of being somewhere new. She is nervous and needs to take time to settle in. Just give her time and she will eventually eat something. What food are you feeding her? As for her hiding, this is normal behavior also. Chameleons are generally shy creatures, Jackson chameleons are particularly shy. When you go over to her cage move slowly and make sure the cage is elevated so she has the option to be above your head height as she will feel safer that way. What you have mentioned all sounds normal for a chameleon settling in a new place. Just be patient with her and don’t attempt to hold her and she will feel a bit more at ease in your presence.

    1. Hi Terri,

      I’ve written a more detailed article about lighting here but to answer your question I find 12 hours on and 12 hours off is a good schedule all year round.

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