Chameleons are mainly defined by their obvious colorful features, their ability to change color and their independently moving eyes. Less is mentioned, however, about their behavior in general, whether their aggressive, calm, affectionate and so on.
So, what is typical chameleon behavior? Chameleons are generally shy cautious and solitary creatures. While they’re not generally vicious they can put on aggressive displays if they feel threatened and can bite if those displays are ignored. Chameleons are not affectionate when kept as pets and would prefer to be left alone rather than be held.
General Chameleon Behavior
Chameleons are solitary creatures. As humans, we not only like to socialize with other humans it is a necessity for our well being to have some social interaction. We have also bred other animals, dogs in particular, to not only work for us but also to provide companionship and affection.
None of this is true for chameleons. Chameleons do not want the company of their own species and, in fact, will feel threatened when another member of their species is nearby, particularly if they are the same sex. This is magnified if it’s a member of a different chameleon species and, more still, if it’s a member of a different species altogether, yes this includes our own species.
Chameleons will a lot of the time change color, hiss, lunge and gape their mouths open if they encounter any other creature in their vicinity. I say most of the time because there are occasions when they won’t.
If two chameleons of the opposite sex are in the same vicinity and want to mate some of these displays will occur but it will form part of the courtship ritual and two cameleons in this situation will move towards each other rather than away. Of course, if the female isn’t interested she will let the male know by moving away, displaying aggressive postures and attempting the bite if the male still doesn’t get the message.
We, of course, all know that chameleons change color but they change color as part of their behavior. It was generally thought they change color to match their environment but they don’t. Instead, they use color changes to reflect their moods, for courtship purposes, when in fight or flight mode or whether they’re too cold. My article about why chameleons turn black can be found here.
Another more overlooked aspect of chameleon behavior is the way they walk. Chameleons walk in slow, jagged movements. This is their attempt to mimic a leaf blowing in the wind in order to disguise themselves from possible predators in the area.
Chameleons generally have similar temperaments but there are slight differences between the three main chameleons generally kept as pets.
- Veiled Chameleon Temperament – Veiled chameleons are generally considered to be the most aggressive. This doesn’t mean they will attack at will but they are extremely territorial and will often put on an aggressive display if you go near their territory. My veiled chameleon grew more tolerant of me near his enclosure over time but he’d still let me know it was his house every now and then.
- Panther Chameleon Temperament – While panther chameleons have a similar temperament to veiled chameleons they are, in general, a little less aggressive than veiled chameleons. They would still prefer to be left alone and will let you know with a hiss if they feel threatened.
- Jackson Chameleon Temperament – Jackson chameleons are the most docile out of the three. They’re not as quick to make an aggressive display and are generally easier to handle. Like other chameleons, I would advise against regular handling but sometimes chameleons need to be held in order to check on their health and Jackson chameleons are the easiest to handle.
Implications of Chameleon Behavior for captivity
Knowing that chameleons are generally shy and solitary will help you understand better how to care for them in captivity.
Straight away this means that it’s preferable not to house chameleons together with other chameleons and definitely not advised to house with any other species.
I’ve seen instances where two chameleons are housed together but these are nearly always a male and a female and always in an enormous enclosure much bigger than ones readily available in stores.
People who keep more than one chameleon often house them separately and make sure they can’t even see other chameleons in separate enclosures to reduce stress. If you’re new to chameleon keeping just stick with one at a time.
The fact chameleons are shy and solitary means they generally do not like to be held. I have written more about this here. While it’s possible that chameleons will tolerate being held they, in general, do not like it and nearly every time I hear of a chameleon being held regularly they always have a short life span.
This is because chameleons are really vulnerable to stress and anything that doesn’t take into account their shy, cautious and solitary nature will cause them stress and that stress will lead to illness further down the line.
How to make a pet chameleon more comfortable
The truth is most chameleons will always be cautious and shy, this is just their nature and they prefer to be left alone. This is one of the main things I love about them. Chameleons are therefore best observed rather interacted with too much. Even just observing chameleons can still make them nervous but there are ways to mitigate this.
- House them in a quiet room – They don’t have to be completely out of the way but if you have a room that is regularly used by the entire family at the same time try and have their cage somewhere quieter. They will still be nervous with one or two people looking at them but less so and over time they will be more comfortable with it. A too busy room can stress them out.
- Make sure they can climb higher – Higher than your head! So place the cage on a table and have perches that at least a couple of feet higher than your head as this allows them to not feel so threatened and that you’re about to swoop on them as prey.
- Plant the enclosure well – Put a good three or four plants in there with good foliage cover. Not so much that some areas are too dark but enough so your chameleon can feel safe and hide in should they need to. My article about what plants to use can be found here.
- Move slowly – Whenever you go near the cage try and move slower and don’t make sudden movements. Again this will make them feel more comfortable and less likely to puff up and be defensive. Also, try and wear neutral colors as well if possible as too bright or too dark can freak them out!
Don’t worry if even after you try all these things your chameleon still lunges, puffs up and hisses. As I said earlier, being cautious and shy is just their nature and acting out when they feel threatened is part of that. To me, it’s part of their appeal and what makes them so fascinating to observe.