Growth of Parson’s Chameleons (Calumma parsonii parsonii)

By Franco Gagliardi


Gagliardi, F. (2006). Growth of Parson’s Chameleons (Calumma parsonii parsonii). Chameleons! Online E-Zine, September 2006. (


The purpose of this article is to share my experiences raising Parson’s Chameleons (Calumma parsonii parsonii). Over the past three years I have been blessed with the opportunity to care for a small group of this species. During this time, the growth and behavioral practices of the group has been observed and chronicled. I readily admit that in three years I have only begun to scratch the surface of knowledge regarding these majestic creatures. Both success and failure has been experienced over the years, but without a doubt, the joy of keeping these magnificent creations far overshadows the difficulties that are sometimes associated with their unique behavior.

I currently maintain a group of four white-lipped Parson’s Chameleons. The group breakdown is 2.0.2, which translates to two males, zero females, and two unsexed individuals. The two males are more than three years old and the two unsexed animals are about five months old. The experience of trying to determine the sex of a young parsonii has proven to be an ever-perplexing challenge to me. Of course, one’s imagination can get the best of him when he is hoping to have a mix of males and females. This was the case when the elder two chameleons were acquired in the early months of 2004.

A Tragic Beginning

At the time of acquisition in 2004, I maintained a fair sized breeding group of Panther Chameleons and a single female Parson’s Chameleon. The female Parson’s was about a year old and had been acquired in the summer of 2003. She was known to be a female prior to her cross country trip from New Hampshire to California. Upon arrival, she was a yellowish-green color and became well acquainted with her dripper immediately out of the box. From that summer until the arrival of her potential future mate(s) in February, she had grown into the most beautiful green reptile I had ever seen. Each day after work I would eagerly rush home to bring her outside so that she could enjoy the natural sunlight. She had a favorite ficus tree on which she would eagerly perform her routine of basking, drinking, and eating. Little was it known that it would be that same tree that over a half of a year later would lead to her unfortunate demise.

The winter of 2003 was like any other winter in the area east of the San Francisco Bay. The temperature was too cold to bring the chameleons outside on a regular basis but they all were thriving inside in a thermally controlled environment. The favorite tree of the female Parson’s was formidable in size and had always been an outside tree. Care was taken to ensure that the tree was not susceptible to frost bite on the few occasions that frost-causing conditions were present. However, one night prior to sub-freezing temperatures, the tree was left unprotected. The consequences of that oversight were not seen until months later though. Around that same time, a large cage was constructed for the female. The cage was large and had enough space for her favorite tree as well as other plants and branches. The large ficus tree, still appearing to be alive and well, was added to the cage furnishings.

The female continued to thrive through the rest of the winter enjoying her dripper and consuming every cricket, silkworm, and hornworm that ever had the unlucky experience of meeting the thick end of her tongue. Through this time it was noticed that the large ficus tree began to drop its leaves. Being thick and healthy upon insertion into the cage, it took several weeks for the majority of the leaves to fall. Through the process I noticed this change and maintained the hope that the tree would regain its once prominent stature after some time of adjustment in its new, indoor home. Unfortunately, this hope was not realized and the tree never grew leaves again. Given that the leafless tree provided many strong climbing branches and that the other cage furnishing provided enough cover, the tree was left in the cage.

Life continued as normal until one day during the watering routine the author noticed the female down near the tree’s base chewing on a piece of bark that had peeled off of the dead tree. The female showed no signs of distress and seemed to have the situation well under control. Not wanting to cause more trouble by startling the female into a choking spell, I decided to let the female continue on her way. After a few minutes, she had finished consuming the peculiar snack. Later that day everything seemed normal. Normality continued for a couple of weeks until the female began occasionally “coughing”. The “coughing” was sporadic and her activity level seemed normal and she continued to eat and drink. The one thing that seemed unordinary was her color during the night. Usually she would be a greenish color with a yellow hint when she slept, but now her sleep color became primarily yellow. This behavior persisted for a few days.

The fog of time had clouded my memory into overlooking the bark incident when I was considering the possible causes of her behavior. Frequent examinations showed an appearance of good health with her grip being strong and her activity level constant. A vet visit was being considered but was not achieved in time.

On Saturday, March 14, 2004, I attended a play in San Francisco. The show was terrific but the day had a strange feeling to it. Upon return to my townhouse-style apartment that evening, something ominous was noticed. The large cage of the female was visible in the second story room where she was housed. At this time of night she was usually in her favorite nighttime spot. However, this day was a little different. An anxious feeling overcame me as I ascended the stairs of the apartment. I entered the room and quickly scanned the cage branches. Looking on the branches was of little use because, as I feared, she was not there. She was found laying at the base of her tree, where a few weeks prior she had been strangely enjoying an improbable snack. After much effort at revival and a call to the emergency vet clinic, she was pronounced dead.

The following day her body was brought to the clinic for a necropsy. The necropsy found that she suffered from a ruptured small intestine caused by a fibrous blockage. The fibrous object could be nothing other than the ficus bark. In hindsight, like most mistakes the sequence of errors is obvious and tragic. Many lessons were learned during the 7-8 months during which I cared for the female Parson’s.


About a month prior to the death of the female, the opposite end of the emotional spectrum was experienced. The arrival of two juvenile parsonii was met with much anticipation and preparation. These two animals came from the same source as the female. They were, however, less mature than the female before the transaction and thus, much more difficult to sex. In an effort to build a 1.2 breeding trio of Parson’s, I had requested a 1.1 pair to go with my existing female. The arrangements were made and the package containing the two chameleons was shipped from the east coast to the nearest International Airport via an airport to airport shipping service.

The arrival of the package and coordination of pickup with the carrier was far from smooth. But a little miscommunication could not damper the excitement surrounding the new arrivals. After a few wrong turns, I made my way to the cargo area where the package was being held. The month was February and the morning was overcast and cold. Being naíve, I expected special care to be given to the box containing such prized chameleons. I was mistaken. The labeling on the box requesting temperature consideration was clearly ignored.

Once the box was safely in the car, I hurriedly opened the package to examine the fragile contents. Inside the large insulated box were two cloth bags containing motionless, cold animals. There were heat packs in the box, but given the thermal conditions in which the box was placed, one can conclude that the thermal equilibrium reached was much lower than ideal. To my relief, a slight touch on a tail caused a reaction. The same happened with the other bag. I now faced the task of warming and hydrating the new arrivals.

The two chameleons had just come from a place where they were housed in groups of five or more. With this in mind, I arranged a large cage to house them together. The cage was 4-foot (1.2-meters) tall by 2-foot (0.7-meter) wide by 2-foot (0.7-meter) deep. It was equipped with a large ficus plant with ample climbing branches, a dripper, a heat lamp, a UV light, and a drainage container. The chameleons were misted in their cage and drank immediately. They ate after warming up and on first glance they appeared to be a 1.1 pair.

They each weighed over 50-grams. One had bright orange/yellow eyes and was the definite male. The other had a more beige/tan color with beige/yellow eyes and greenish bands. At this point, rostral protuberances were not obvious. The two cohabitated for about a week and then it was noticed that the apparent female became territorial. “Sheâ” began gaping and displaying behavior that showed “her” discomfort with the presence of the male. At this point, they were separated physically and visually.

During the initial period of their care, they would eat every other day or so, sometimes more frequently. They eagerly consumed crickets (well-gut-loaded using the AdCham recipe), ½-inch (1 ¼-cm) long hissing cockroaches, and silkworms. One factor that led to their eating behavior was the time of year and the cooler ambient temperatures. At that time, their appetites were not nearly as voracious as they would become. Their food would be lightly dusted with calcium powder and vitamins every second feeding and water was offered multiple times a day.

The one with the orange/yellow eyes developed colors obviously male with dark slashes on his sides and a bluish tint to what had been a tan body. Over time, the blue became more pronounced and his rostral protuberances became more and more apparent. A collage of his growth over time is shown below with the time labels indicating the amount of time since his arrival.

He was eventually upgraded into a 6-foot (1.8-meters) tall by 4-foot (1.2-meters) wide by 2-foot (0.7-meter) deep cage fully furnished with heat lamps, UVB lighting (Reptisun 10.0), a dripper, large plants, and many branches. His diet consisted of crickets, silkworms, and his favorites: hornworms and roaches (orange heads and hissers). He would be taken outside frequently so that he could bask and be showered in the natural sunlight.

The chameleon that was thought to be a female grew quickly into a green bodied beauty. Though, this green body was different than the other female I had owned. At this point in development, my other female and died, thus, the desire for the “female” to actually be a female had increased. With each day that passed I would visually examine the green specimen and try to convince myself that it was a female. That was until everything changed about four months after “her” arrival.

At the four month mark, shown below, was the first time that the “female” showed what the author considered to be distinct male stress colors. The event happened and was captured during transit to an outside perch. After that point, the rostral protuberances also became more obvious (or at least more acknowledged). There was no more denying the truth that the 1.1 pair was really two males. Although there was disappointment at the misidentification, I took great joy in caring for both of the males. The growth collage of the male originally thought to be a female is shown below.

Both males were housed under the same conditions. Their weight gain was documented and is shown graph below.

As the weight plot shows, there are distinct periods of activity and inactivity. During the cold weather months it was not uncommon for the large males to go without food for a week or more (despite it being offered regularly). The lack of movement was also noticeable during these periods. During this past winter, one of the males sat in the same spot day after day only making an effort to change the direction that his body was facing every day or so. The duration and frequency of misting was reduced during this time because of lack of interest and lessened evaporation. This inactive period came to an end in the middle of March as the days lengthened and the temperatures increased. Their appetites became larger and they ventured from the perches to which they had been so attached. The graph also shows the increased change in weight compared to the change in time seen during the spring and summer months. One explanation for the continual growth during the end of the arrival winter is that young chameleons grow faster than older chameleons.

To date, the two adult males are thriving. They continue to consume large quantities of insects and water. They have an automatic misting system that operates multiple times a day for 15-30 minutes per session. They have grips that can stop the circulation in your fingers and the sound of their tongue banging off the side of their cages capturing crickets is quite impressive. They are not handled often, generally only when they are being weighed or moved outside. Both of them dislike being held and show their discomfort with noticeable black blotches. Despite their preference to not be handled, they both readily eat from my hands. There is a presumption based on their size and ages that they are sexually mature, however breeding has not proven this theory because a quest for potential mates has yet to be fulfilled.

Potential Mate Acquisition

A few months ago a group of captive born and bred Parson’s Chameleons became available. The age of the group was believed to be one to two months of age. At stated earlier, sexing Parson’s at this age is a beyond my capability and a best guess approach was used. The goal was to acquire two females to pair with the two adult males already under my care.

The growth of the two new acquisitions over the past 2.5 months has been frequently recorded visually and by weight. To distinguish between the two, one will be referred to as “Dot” and the other as “No-Dot” in reference to the appearance or absence of a white dot on their side.

Time has shown that Dot appears to be developing orange/yellow eyes with dark stripes which would indicate to me that Dot is a male. A growth collage of Dot is shown below.

Prior to the day of arrival, a cage was setup to house the two new chameleons together. The cage was fully equipped with all of the lighting, heating, and misting accessories shared with their larger parsonii counterparts. As the pictures of Dot on Day 1 show, cohabitation would not work. After the gaping incident, they were quickly separated into their own cages, both, fully equipped, and have remained happily, visually separated ever since.

No-Dot did not display any sort of aggression when in the vicinity of Dot, however it only took one being intolerant to create an urgent need for separation. This was another case where individual housing of chameleons was a necessity (even though they had previously been housed together). The growth collage of No-Dot is shown below. At this point, No-Dot has not shown striping as dark as Dot’s, however, No-Dot is starting to show yellowish/orange eyes. The jury is still out on the sex of both of them, but I may very well have a 4.0 group.

Over the past 2.5 months the young Parson’s have more than quadrupled their arrival weight. Their growth has been stunning and is displayed on the graph below.

This graph shows that they have gained 1/3-gram on average per day. Their diet consists of crickets and silkworms. Dot has eaten a hornworm, but hornworms are not an economical snack at this size. They are fed every one to two days depending on the cricket presence in their cage. The crickets are between 3/8-inch to ½-inch and are gut-loaded well before feeding. The crickets are lightly dusted with calcium powder and vitamins every other feeding or so. The two of them are brought outside as frequently as possible, and due to the time of year, their outdoor exposure has been about three times a week on average. Their cages are automatically misted three times a day, twice for 30 minutes (in the morning and again in the evening) and once for 15 minutes (around midday). The cages are arranged so they drain into containers which are emptied every other day. The cages each have Reptisun 5.0 UVB bulbs, a low watt heat lamp and plenty of climbing branches and plants. The ambient temperature in the room is high 70s to mid 80s on the hottest days and the night temperatures drops to the low 60s.

Key Lessons Learned

Several key lessons learned over the years are worthy of note. I do not think anyone should try to keep this species without having an automatic misting system. They drink a considerable amount of water and their shyness would not lend itself well to someone hanging over their cage for 15 minutes. They do not like to be handled.

They can be picky eaters and can change their preferences over time. For example, one of the adult males would not eat crickets. He showed interest in nothing but hornworms and roaches. To my surprise, in the spring following a winter slump, he showed a tremendous amount of interest in crickets and now he loves silkworms, crickets, and all of the other delicacies. Additionally, they can go longer than a week or two without food during the winter time (this lesson caused a lot of useless worry).

They like moderate temperatures and gape when the ambient temperature gets into the upper 80s and low 90s. They enjoy being outside as long as they have access to water and shade/privacy.

I hope to continue working with this species far into the future. Their impressive size and gentle, graceful nature makes them a joy to work with.

Franco Gagliardi

Franco Gagliardi has worked extensively with chameleons for the past 8 years. During that time, he has had the pleasure of hatching countless baby chameleons. When he is not tending to his breeding group, he can be found walking purposefully through any large body of grass catching bugs to feed to his hatchlings. If you happen to see him, please feel free to say hello. At the end of the day, once all of the chameleons have gone to sleep, he spends his time apprehending loose crickets with the help of his trusty canine sidekick, Bella. Franco has a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from UC Davis and was an Assistant Editor of the Chameleons! E-Zine from May 2004-February 2007. He can be e-mailed at


Join Our Facebook Page for Updates on New Issues: