When setting up an enclosure for a pet chameleon, the most important aspect to get right is its lighting. Getting it right will save you lots of trouble down the line.
According to expert veterinary surgeon, Francis M Baines. A pet chameleon needs:
- Basking light to provide heat for thermoregulation.
- UVB light at either 5.0 or 10 strength to enable them to create vitamin D3 and prevent bone disease.
- Full spectrum daylight bulb for vision, alertness and to improve plant growth in the enclosure.
Like all reptiles, chameleons are ectotherms. This means they are unable to regulate their own body temperature like mammals can, and instead have to rely on an outside source to thermoregulate their temperature. Of course, the best source for this is natural sunlight
Chameleons will wake up in the morning and the first thing they will do is find a quiet place to sit in the sun and soak up its heat in order to warm its body to the optimum temperature.
They will then move away to a cooler area to feed, get a drink if there are droplets on leaves nearby, or just hang out and cool down.
Chameleons will repeat this throughout the day as and when their body temperature dictates.
This thermoregulation needs to be replicated in captivity, and this is why a basking light is required. The basking light mimics the sun for the chameleon to sit under until it’s warm enough to move away and feed or drink.
The basking bulb needs to be halogen or incandescent, as LED lights do not give off heat.
The wattage you will need to get will depend on what the temperature is like in your home year-round but generally between 40 and 60-watt bulbs are perfect.
For my chameleon, I use this lamp with its accompanying 60 watt bulb. You may have to change the wattage depending on how far away your chameleon’s back will be from the bulb and your average room temperature.
Check the chart displayed on the box. The lamp I use is dimmable, so you can reduce the heat output if necessary.
You can also buy a UVB and basking bulb all in one, known as a mercury vapor bulb, but I don’t recommend these as they put too much heat for a chameleon and may cause them to burn themselves.
Basking lights alone only provide heat for pet chameleons, they need a separate lamp to meet their UVB requirements.
While chameleons are busy soaking up the heat from the sun in their natural environment, they’re also soaking up the sun’s UVB rays.
Chameleons need UVB to create essential vitamin D3 in their bodies, which they use to absorb calcium from their diet.
Without a UVB bulb, your chameleon will get sick very quickly, with metabolic bone disease being the worst of the problems caused by no UVB light source.
You should only choose one type of UVB light for your chameleon, and that’s a T5 high output strip bulb with a reflector. There’s a good reason for this that’s demonstrated in the image below, taken from research carried out by veterinary surgeon, Baines et al.
As you can see in the bottom left image, a UVB strip light with a reflector gets better breadth and depth of light penetration into the cage than any other method.
There is some debate over whether to use a 5.0 or 10 strength UVB bulb for a pet chameleon.
These numbers indicate what percentage of UVB rays the bulbs emit. 5.0 are considered fine for panther chameleons, veiled chameleons and Jackson chameleons.
If you have a heavily planted enclosure then use a 10 for veiled and panther but make sure there is enough plant cover for them to take shade should they need to. Always use a 5.0 for Jackson’s chameleons.
The image above is taken from a study that compared the different brands of UVB bulbs available and what Ferguson zone they reach.
The Ferguson zone was devised by Professor Gary Ferguson and his colleagues in their research paper for the Zoo Biology journal.
It is a collection of four different zones to determine how different reptiles bask in the sun.
Veiled and Panther Chameleons fall into the zone 3 category, meaning they bask in the open sun throughout the day. Jackson’s spend more time in zone 2, meaning they only bask occasionally, which accounts for their lower temperature requirements.
As you can see in the image, only a few of the brands available reach all four zones. It is good practice to use lights that reach all zones, as long as you plant their cage effectively to give them plenty of shading options.
With this in mind, the T5 reptisun 5.0 or arcadia 6% bulbs with reflectors are the best options. I use both interchangeably, with preference for the arcadia model due to the brightness of the bulb and longevity.
The advantage of getting the reptisun is that it’s cheaper, and it comes with a full spectrum light built into the fixture for plant growth. Opting for the arcadia model would require you get the full spectrum light separately.
The 24-inch version hoods to fit a 22-inch bulb are what you will need if you get the most common 24x24x48 inch cage.
UVB bulbs will last a long time, but they do need to be changed every six to nine months. This is because the level of UVB light emitted drops significantly around this time.
Full Spectrum Light
Full spectrum lights are bright LED lights placed alongside the basking and UVB lights on top of the cage.
These lights benefit chameleon vision and help the plants to thrive in what are generally low light conditions.
They also make your chameleon’s colors look awesome and the enclosure super bright for display.
The reptisun UVB bulb I mentioned earlier has LED full spectrum lights built in.
Should you want to get a separate one, which you will need to do if you get the arcadia UVB bulb, it needs to be between 6000k and 6500k to mimic daylight.
The Jungle Dawn by arcadia is what I use alongside my UVB bulb.
Setting Up The Lights
Needs to be outside the enclosure. Place the fixture in a back corner on the mesh roof of the cage directly above a branch approximately 10 or 12 inches away from the cage roof.
This too needs to be outside the enclosure. Lay the fixture flat in the middle of the roof of the cage. UVB light cannot penetrate glass, so only do this if you have a screen cage or the top of your glass enclosure is mesh.
Should you choose to get a separate one, just place this on top of the enclosure next to the UVB light.
When planting the enclosure, you’ll need to leave a bit of bare space at the top, so your chameleon can sit directly under the basking lamp without having heat and UVB rays blocked by leaves.
Below that space, provide good plant cover to enable your chameleon to move away from the heat and UVB when it needs to so they can cool down and have some respite from the UVB rays.
Lights need to be timed for a twelve-hour on and twelve-hour off cycle.
This ensures your chameleon gets enough sleep and keeps their day/night rhythm consistent.
Some people argue that in order to mimic the day/night rhythm in captivity, you need to do extra things like reducing the time the lights are on during winter, and you need to provide blue and red spectrum lights to mimic the moon.
While I have experimented a bit with reducing the light on hours, I didn’t really notice any difference in behavior, in fact, my chameleon seemed happier when I stuck with twelve hours on and twelve hours off cycle.
As for the blue and red spectrum lights, these are not necessary for a chameleon setup.
This power strip with built-in timers is great for powering any setup and controlling the lighting schedule.