The Origins of Myth!...The Problematic melleri

By Ken Kalisch


Kalisch, K. (2002). The Origins of Myth!...The Problematic melleri. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, November 2002. (

The Origins of Myth!...The Problematic melleri

There has been much speculation and many discussions about the concerns over the health risks of imported Chamaeleo (triceros) melleri over the years. The basis of these concerns can be traced back to the early nineties with two incidents that occurred with the mixing of newly imported wild caught C.melleri and long term wild caught Calumma parsonii.

Both of these scenarios played out in the USA in California. One took place in Southern California in a large indoor free-range setup and the other in Northern California in a large greenhouse. Each situation had the similarity in that the C.parsonii had been long-term well-established reptiles. The Parsoni were, to both owners' knowledge, all in excellent health. The C.parsonii had established a regular routine of basking, feeding, and places for perching. They had all been in captivity for an extended period of time.

In both of these cases the C.melleri were introduced into the established C.parsonii environment. The initial response of the two species seemed to be non-problematic and no initial aggression was observed. But in both situations within a few days of introduction the C.melleri started to become aggressive towards the C.parsonii. The aggression consisted of the C.melleri challenging the parsonii for their perching spots and driving them into the lower areas of their environment. The C.melleri aggression consisted of gular flaring and rocking of their body and eventually led to them charging and biting the C.parsonii to drive them off the desired area. The C.parsonii responded by showing little aggression and making some futile attempts to hold their ground. At first it was thought that the display and aggression by the C.melleri was more of a bluff on their part to establish territory for themselves, but as the aggression increased to actually biting of the parsonii, it became clear that the two species were not compatible. In both cases the C.melleri were removed and the C.parsonii were allowed to resume and re-establish their old territories.

Over the period of the next few weeks the C. parsonii started to show signs of lethargy and the bite marks became infected. They began to slow down on their food and water intake and appeared listless. The symptoms further increased to show blood in their stools as well as a general appearance of anemia

They were taken to a veterinarian and were prescribed antibiotics for the symptoms. There was no response to the medication and the C.parsonii continued to decline in heath. The overall condition was identified was that they were bleeding internally, causing an acute infection. Eventually all but one of the C.parsonii involved died of internal bleeding and the resultant infection that occurred from it.

From these two events sprang much debate as to the risks of housing and dealing with the care of C.melleri in captivity. Because of this, many people chose to not have them in their care.

The events of the two groups of animals dying off and no clear understanding of what caused the deaths created a clear choice for me. My first response to this at the time was to choose to avoid them. Plain and simple, I wasn't willing to risk the possible infection of my other reptiles. The necropsies done on the reptiles indicated that they had died from severe internal hemorrhaging of their organs as well as the complications from the infection that resulted from the bleeding, probably via the bite from the C.melleri. This is does not seem to be an unreasonable conclusion even though the necropsies could not isolate a clear identification for the cause of death. The lack of a successful response to medication and the fact that 9 out of 10 C.parsonii had died indicated that, whatever had happen, caution would be the prudent course of action.

These events, combined with the unknown cause of death, produced a generalized avoidance for C.melleri in the chameleon community. As the years passed this story evolved and became fact/myth increasing the belief that these were truly problematic reptiles.

Adding fuel to the fire was a surge in importation of C.melleri in the mid to late nineties. These shipments brought in fairly large numbers of adult and sub-adults. The chameleons brought in seem to have unusually high mortality rates and the majority of the keepers were finding that they were having little success keeping them alive for longer than a few months. The chameleons would arrive in what appeared as good health and then slowly declined and perished. This became a common experience that was shared among chameleon keepers.

Clearly C.melleri have had some problematic issues in captivity. There are some key questions that emerge out of these events:

1. How much of these problems are about the chameleon or about the keepers' husbandry practices?

I included this question because I think we often blame the chameleon for our lack of understanding of the reptiles' circumstance and needs. The C.melleri seem to have a very strong stress response to environmental changes. This would easily compromise their immune system leaving them open to all types of infections. Add to this the whole process of capture, holding, shipping and so on until it actually reaches it's final destination at a hobbyists home. I have often speculated that in the country of origin, the newly captured chameleons are housed in holding cages that many different species and reptiles have previously used. In these holding pens can be a huge potential for exposure to all types of parasites, bacteria and viruses never previously encountered. Unless the holding pens are cleaned and disinfected after each inhabitant's use it could be an opportunity for exposure to all kinds of harmful pathogens that the chameleon would never have encountered, further compromising the chameleon's immune system.

I think that in the above cases, there was a way to prevent the death of the C.parsonii. Basically, it is isolation. The mixing of species is always a tricky proposition and often ends in trouble and a practice that I tend to discourage owners from. Unless you are prepared to sit and watch them 24/7 to prevent any aggression, it really ends up becoming impractical.

Dealing with the health concerns is a viable part of any new acquisitions. The ideal scenario would be having full labwork done on any newly acquired chameleon. Make sure you treat any problematic findings. Do a full antibiotic course of treatment for any infections or identified illness. Do a three-course treatment for all the parasites or until the fecal comes back clean. I will add that even with all the above treatments, you still may be putting your animals at risk by co-habitation, the good news is that you will have eliminated most of the health concerns for their long term survival in captivity

2. Was it reasonable to think that C.melleri were responsible for the infections and eventual deaths of the C.parsonii?

It was once said, "The worst bite a human can sustain is the bite of another human!" All, humor aside, there are many facts which support the transmission of bacteria and viral pathogens in a bite. The real question here is what was transmitted and what is the potential for contamination to other reptiles? There was a study done on C.melleri by a vet in Florida that was able to isolate a specific virus that was responsible for the symptoms described with the Melleri/parsonii. The data was lost and the contact with that vet as well. This was an unfortunate loss of valuable data.

As most of us know, it is not a good practice to introduce newly acquired reptiles with established ones. But even with a quarantine of the newer reptiles, deparasitation and a thorough vet check it is still possible for possible exposure to disease.

What had become clear was that any newly imported Melleri were suspect for disease and ideally required a complete check with a good reptile vet. The procedures recommended were a full fecal examination, and having a throat and rectal culture done on them. As these procedures were performed on a regular basis, it was found the new imports had very high levels of bacteria, sometimes as many as five different compromising types, as well as many of them also had very heavy parasite loads. Either of these alone is problematic for successful adjustment in captivity. Together they are an ideal mix for the chameleon's failure to survive. Without medical treatment they were a poor risk for survival.

3. Is it a fair rational that they are not suitable to keep them in captivity and if you do, that you are placing the other reptiles in your care at risk by doing so?

No, the rational is an overreaction to the problem. If the above procedures and interventions/preventions are followed and they are kept in their own cages, they should not present a risk to the other chameleons in your care any more than any other introduced chameleon.

4. Are the poor success rates in captivity stress related or are they related to pre-existing disease and/or parasites?

All of the above. As I addressed in the above questions, it really is about our responsibility as a keeper to understand and respond appropriately to the needs and conditions that the chameleons have lived in and the importation process that they have gone through.

The first step in successful acclimation is providing the correct environment. The cage size, planting, branches and even the method of watering all help with successful adjustment. The medical needs and intervention are equally important. Eliminating and treating any heath issues is essential to long term survival in captivity, without them the reptile is compromised. Even with all the above suggestions, it is still not a guarantee that the chameleon will live to an old age. What it will do is increase the chances that they will be able to live a long life. The rest is up to the chameleon and it's ability to adjust to a life in captivity.

Ken Kalisch

Ken Kalisch has worked with over 40 species of chameleons in the last decade. He was co-editor of the Chameleon information Network, as well as being published by Advanced Vivarium Systems dealing with his experience breeding Calumma parsonii parsonii in captivity. He was the editor of this CHAMELEONS! EZine from March 2002-March 2004.


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