Lesser Chameleon Care Page

Prepared by Frank Payne

The lesser, or Minor's, chameleon is a diurnal (day-active), arboreal (tree-dwelling), insectivorous (insect-eating) lizard native to Madagascar. They are one of the smaller, more beautifully colored, and rarest of all captive bred chameleons. Males are easily identified by their 2 fairly large horns on the front of their head and tend to come in shades of beige or gold with some dark banding, becoming more vivid when displaying to another chameleon. Females are usually emerald green with bright red on the head, red and blue dots on the sides, and some yellow banding, but when gravid or unreceptive, females display the most spectacular colors. Lesser chameleons grow to 3-4” from snout to vent (x2 if including tail) and have a healthy lifespan of about 5 years.

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This Care Guide been curated by Frank Payne.

Frank Payne is a biology teacher, former AZA senior herpetology zookeeper, and breeder of exceptional lizards. He has been keeping and breeding reptiles and amphibians for over twenty five years.

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Lesser Chameleon at a Glance

These are some basic core facts about lesser chameleon care:

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Lesser Chameleon
Photo by Frank Payne

Quick Facts

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Size

3-4″ w/o tail

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Active During

Daytime

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Lifespan

5 years

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Nutrition

Insectivorious

Humidity Icon

Humidity

High

Habitat Icon

Habitat

Arboreal

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Basking Temp

90-100°F

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UVB

Required

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Availability

Rare

Natural Habitat

Tapia Forest

Tropical Dry Forest

Lesser chameleons are native to Madagascar, found in the central highland tapia forest.

Handleability Score

2 out of 5: Bad Handleability

Lesser chameleons are best as beautiful display animals rather than a “pet” that gets taken out regularly. They are small, fragile, and often afraid of being handled, so handling should be avoided as much as possible.

Care Difficulty

Hard

Expected Weekly Dedication: 4 hours minimum

Lesser chameleons tend to be more difficult to keep than most other popular reptiles, as they are sensitive and require some specialized equipment. However, daily maintenance is usually fairly low.

Misting should be performed daily, preferably by an automated system. Food and water dishes should be disinfected weekly, as well as any soiled surfaces.

The amount and frequency of spot-cleaning required will depend on whether your enclosure is bioactive or not. We'll cover these respective chores in the Enclosure Enrichment section.

What’s great:

  • Active during the day
  • Great display animal

Things to be aware of:

  • Specialized equipment
  • Require UVB and daylight bulbs
  • High humidity
  • Sensitive to husbandry

Enclosure

Lesser chameleons need at least an 18” x 18” x 24” enclosure, preferably larger.

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Lesser Enclosure
Photo by Frank Payne

Reptiles aren’t like dogs and cats that can simply roam around your house. They are very sensitive to their environment, and need their own enclosure set up according to their specific needs. This guide covers everything you will need to care for your pet lesser chameleon properly.

Enclosure Size Requirements

Lesser chameleons should be housed in an enclosure that is no smaller than 18″L x 18″W x 24″H. This is the recommended minimum, calculated according to the reptile’s average size and activity patterns.

However, if you can provide an enclosure with more vertical and floor space, do it! Housing your chameleon in a larger enclosure with more height allows for a broader temperature gradient and encourages them to be more active and demonstrate more natural behaviors.

We recommend PVC or glass enclosures for lesser chameleons, as these materials can best maintain the humidity and temperatures required for the species. All-screen enclosures typically recommended for chameleons can also be used successfully, though they will require a higher wattage basking light, more frequent and prolonged misting sessions, and cannot support a bioactive setup.

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Can multiple lesser chameleons be housed in the same enclosure?

No, we do not recommend cohabitation for pet lesser chameleons. They are a strictly solitary species, multiple chameleons of any sex housed together can result in resource competition, fighting, and severe wounds.

Lesser Chameleon Enclosure Examples

Frank's cham enclosure

Photo contributed by Frank Payne

Substrate Options

“Substrate” is the material that you use to cover the floor of the enclosure. This aspect of the setup is important for chameleons because it contributes to overall humidity levels. For best results, you should have at least 3-5″ of substrate total, with 3 components:

  • Bottom (drainage layer): 1-2” gravel or clay balls + landscaping cloth
  • Middle (soil layer): 2-3” tropical loose substrate
  • Top (moisture layer): scattered leaf litter and sphagnum moss

Drainage layer
For a humid, tropical substrate, a drainage layer helps aerate the soil, preventing mold and bacterial growth and keeping live plants healthy. Just pour an inch or 2 of your chosen drainage layer into the bottom of the enclosure. You can also place a sheet of landscaping cloth on top to keep it separate from the soil. Here are some options we recommend:


Soil layer
The best soil substrate for lesser chameleons is a DIY mix of roughly 40% untreated topsoil + 40% play sand + 20% coconut fiber (like Eco Earth). Topsoil must not contain any fertilizers, manure, or perlite/vermiculite - read the ingredients! Mix well, soak until muddy, then pack it down on top of the drainage layer.

Alternatively, you can use a pre-packaged soil substrate. Here are some commercial substrates we recommend for chameleons:


Moisture-holding layer
To better hold humidity, scatter some leaf litter on top of the soil. You can also add some sphagnum moss under the leaves or mixed into the soil. You can purchase leaf litter or collect some from outside. Just make sure to gather leaves from a clean, dry area that hasn’t been touched by chemicals, then boil or bake them in your oven at 200°F/100°C for 1 hour to kill microbes.


Bioactive substrate
While traditional housing depends on the keeper for maintenance, bioactive setups are more or less self-sustaining, miniature ecosystems. We highly recommend a bioactive substrate for lesser chameleons, as the high humidity can easily cause mold and bacterial growth otherwise. It can also support live plants, which are great for soil health and for the chameleon to climb on!

All of the above substrates can be made bioactive with the addition of a “cleanup crew,” or bugs. They hide beneath the leaf litter, cleaning up uneaten food, fallen leaves, and fecal remains, making bioactive substrates incredibly low maintenance. All you need to do is wipe off the glass and remove large pieces of waste.

Springtails and isopods (wood lice) make a good starter cleanup crew. For a quick and easy way to set up a bioactive substrate for humid, arboreal reptiles, check out The Bio Dude.

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Quarantine Substrate

When you first bring your new lesser chameleon home, you will need to quarantine for at least 1 month. This means keeping the enclosure as sterile as possible and closely monitoring the lizard's health.

Paper towels are the best substrate for quarantine, as they can be frequently replaced and make it easier to observe feces and other potential health issues. Paper towels should be fully replaced at least once a week and any soiled areas must be replaced daily. Once your pet has shown a clean bill of health, you can introduce your long-term substrate to the enclosure.

If you already have other reptiles in your home, you should extend the quarantine period to 3 months, keep the enclosure in a separate room if possible, and make sure not to share any tools or decor between your new chameleon and other pets, unless fully sanitized between each use.

Environmental Enrichment

Reptiles are much more intelligent than we humans tend to give them credit for, and that means they need things to entertain them. Otherwise they exist in a state of perpetual boredom, which makes them dull, inactive, and overall less interesting as pets. When reptiles have objects to interact with in their enclosure, they become less stressed and more engaged with their environment. This practice is called environmental enrichment.

It’s important to choose enrichment items (a.k.a. enclosure decor) that are appropriate to your pet’s natural behaviors. Here are some objects that serve a vital function in a lesser chameleon terrarium:

Perches/Climbing Objects

Lesser chameleons are arboreal, so a vertical climbing scape is essential. Thin branches and vines should be arranged throughout the enclosure at diverse angles (horizontal, diagonal, vertical), so the chameleon can rest at varying heights. Create at least one perch near the top of the enclosure that is fully exposed to the heat and UVB lamps for basking. The middle and bottom levels should have plenty of shady areas to rest and hide.
If you collect any wood from outside, give it a good scrub and bake at 250°F for about an hour &/or soak in a disinfectant compatible with porous surfaces, such as Clean Break or F10SC.


Cover

You’ll need to provide plenty of places for your chameleon to hide to feel secure in its environment and to self-regulate UV, light, and heat exposure. Plants with bushy or large leaves are a great way to provide cover and emulate their natural environment. You can also add small hides that are suspended, nestled amid the branches, or attached to the walls of the enclosure.


Plants

You should have a bushy plant that takes up about half the enclosure that your chameleon can climb on, hide in, and drink from the leaves. In addition to providing necessary cover and climbing, live plants make an attractive addition to a bioactive enclosure. Schefflera and ficus are great options for carpet chameleons. Make sure any live plants are nontoxic and suited to a tropical environment. Artificial plants can also be used, just be sure to clean and sanitize them before arranging them inside the enclosure.


Background

Aside from helping your setup look nice, a good background can provide more climbing opportunities and help your chameleon feel more secure if the terrarium is made of glass.

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How do I keep my enclosure clean?

To control the growth of pathogens and keep your lesser chameleon enclosure hygienic and odor-free, it’s important to clean it regularly.

Non-Bioactive Enclosures:
Spot-cleaning should be performed daily. This is the routine removal of uneaten food, feces, urates, and contaminated substrate. Solid substrate and any soiled surfaces should be scrubbed with reptile-safe disinfectant and rinsed at least weekly. Loose substrate should be completely removed and replaced every 4-6 months, depending on how diligent you are about spot-cleaning. This is also a good time to completely disinfect the enclosure with an animal-safe disinfectant like F10SC or chlorhexidine.

Bioactive Enclosures:
If you have a bioactive enclosure, “cleaning” will be more like periodic maintenance: watering the plants, adding biodegradables, and feeding the CUC as needed. Substrate does not need to be replaced. Some spot-cleaning will still be required for urates and soiled surfaces.

In both cases, you may also need to routinely remove water spots/mineral deposits from the glass of the enclosure. One of the most efficient ways to remove these is by scraping them off with a razor blade.

Lighting

Lesser chameleons need 3 types of lamps in their enclosure: A UVB lamp, a 6500K daylight lamp, and a heat lamp.

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Lesser Lighting
Photo by Frank Payne

UVB is important for enabling vitamin D3 synthesis, strengthening the immune system, and encouraging proper organ function. It also stimulates the production of serotonin, a feel-good hormone. UVB can’t just be replaced with a vitamin D3 supplement for lesser chameleons!

UVA is important for allowing full-color vision, because lesser chameleons can see UVA wavelengths (humans can’t!). It is suspected to play a role in mental health and appetite.

The 6500K daylight lamp provides extra illumination at a color temperature that is similar to sunlight. As diurnal reptiles, lesser chameleons are highly stimulated by having a well-lit environment during the day. Bright daytime lighting is likely to encourage more activity, better appetite, and better mental health.

Infrared radiation (i.e. heat) is important for reptiles' thermoregulation. As ectotherms, they rely on the heat of the sun to warm their bodies and stimulate their metabolism, digest their food, and stay alert and active. The shorter the wavelength, the deeper it can penetrate their muscle tissue. In captivity, we can provide this with specific heat bulbs that emit the most beneficial infrared wavelengths (IR-A and IR-B).

All light and heat should be kept on a regular schedule using outlet timers or done manually. This allows for a predictable day/night cycle which the chameleon can follow, allowing for natural hormonal rhythms and good mental health. We recommend the following schedule for lesser chameleons, based on their natural environment:

SEASONON/OFF SCHEDULE
Spring12hrs ON / 12hrs OFF
Summer14hrs ON / 10hrs OFF
Fall12hrs ON / 12hrs OFF
Winter10hrs ON / 14hrs OFF

UVB/UVA

Lesser chameleons need plenty of UVB in order to stay healthy. This should be provided with a 5-7% UVB output T5 lamp or a 10% UVB output T8 lamp. We recommend Arcadia or Zoo Med brand linear fluorescent tubes, as these are the best and most reliable UV lamps on the market.

The bulb should span nearly the full width of the enclosure and be installed at the highest point in order to create an appropriate vertical UV gradient.

Best UVB bulbs for lesser chameleons:


Distance and Mesh
The strength of the UVB lamp’s output varies according to distance from the bulb — stronger when closer, and weaker when further away. If you are using a Solarmeter 6.5 to measure your UVB lamp’s output, the UVI (UV Index) reading should be between 2.9-7.4 at the uppermost basking area, and down to 0.0-1.0 at the lowest perches or substrate level. If you don't have a Solarmeter, here is a rough estimate of how far your basking perch should be from the bulb, based on whether your lamp is above or below mesh:

  • 3-5” (lamp above mesh)
  • 7-9” (without mesh obstruction)


Fixture
To optimize your UVB bulb’s performance, you will need a high-quality reflective T5 HO or T8 fixture, depending on your bulb of choice. Some lamps come in kits that already include a fixture, such as the Arcadia ProT5 kit or Zoo Med T5 HO kit. Otherwise, Zoo Med and Vivarium Electronics make various fixtures for both T5 and T8 bulbs.


T5 bulbs last 12 months and T8 bulbs last 6 months before requiring replacement, as their UVB output decays over time. Off-brand UVB bulbs are likely to have shorter lifespans and unreliable output. Avoid “compact” and coil UVB bulbs, as these cannot distribute a proper UV gradient throughout the enclosure.

Daylight Lamp

Lesser chameleons are heliophilic, meaning they seek out and thrive in sunlight. UVB and heat bulbs aren't going to be enough to provide the bright light that these diurnal lizards need for simulating natural sunlight. An LED bar with about 6500K color temperature is the best option to meet this need. The brightest reptile daylight fixture currently on the market is the Arcadia Jungle Dawn. They’re expensive, but the sheer output of bright, beautifully white light makes them worth the investment. Here are the daylight lamps we recommend:

All lights should be plugged into a timer and set to the same schedule suggested in the UVB section of this guide, allowing for a predictable light cycle and a healthy circadian rhythm.

Heating

Lesser chameleons need access to a variety of temperatures within a certain range in order to properly regulate their metabolism:

  • Basking surface (uppermost perch) — 90-100°F
  • Upper enclosure ambient — 80-85°F
  • Bottom of enclosure ambient — 70-75°F
  • Nighttime temperatures should drop to local room temps, but shouldn’t be lower than 60°F

All heat lamps should be plugged into an outlet timer or a thermostat with a built-in timer and set to the same schedule as the UVB and daylight lamps, allowing for a natural temperature drop and a healthy circadian rhythm.

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Heating Equipment

The best way to create a nice warm basking area for your lesser chameleon is with a halogen flood heat bulb in a ceramic socket lamp, such as:

The exact wattage that will work best for you varies based on the distance between the bulb and the basking area, as well as local room temperature. This may take a bit of experimenting! However, using a dimming thermostat or an on/off thermostat with a plug-in dimmer allows you to adjust it to the right temperature and keep your chameleon safe. Place the thermostat probe directly on the basking surface below the heat source.

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Unsafe Heat Sources

These heat sources are particularly dangerous to lesser chameleons because they can pose major health risks and cause stress. Avoid the following heat sources at all costs and stick to the bulbs we recommend above.

❌ Colored bulbs
Red, blue, purple, and other colored light bulbs are inappropriate for almost all reptiles. They can wash out your chameleon’s vision and make it harder to hunt. In fact, blue lights are known to potentially damage reptiles’ eyes!

❌ “Nighttime” bulbs
The idea that reptiles can't see red, purple, or “black” light is a myth! They may not be able to see the color, but they can still see the light. Using any lights at night can interfere with your chameleon’s day/night cycle, causing stress and poor health.

❌ “Multipurpose” bulbs
Mercury vapor bulbs and other heat+UVB combination bulbs (Zoo Med PowerSun, Exo Terra Solar Glo) are overpowered and inappropriate for lesser chameleons, who need a higher heat to UVB ratio than larger diurnal species. These bulbs can't be used with thermostats and can easily burn your chameleon, so it's much safer to provide and control your heat and UVB separately.

❌ Heat mats and heat rocks
Neither mats nor rocks are appropriate for arboreal species, as they only warm a direct surface, not the surrounding air. Heat rocks (also known as hot rocks/rock heaters/etc.) are notoriously unreliable and many reptiles have lost their lives due to severe burns caused by these devices.

Measuring Temperature

To ensure proper temperatures in your lesser chameleon enclosure, you will need good thermometers. Temp gun-style infrared thermometers are useful for measuring surface temperatures anywhere in the enclosure. However, digital probe thermometers are useful for being able to track local air temperatures at a glance. It's best to have at least 2 thermometers to measure temps on each end of the vertical heat gradient. Here are some devices we recommend for measuring temperatures:

Humidity

Lesser chameleons come from a humid, tropical environment and require a range of 60% to 90% humidity. You should mist 2-3 times a day for approximately 30-60 seconds per session, as needed, and be sure to mist once in the late evening to ensure a natural humidity spike overnight.

The goal is to thoroughly cover the leaves of the plants and the sides of the terrarium with water droplets, stopping before the soil becomes overly saturated. It is important not to mist the enclosure again until all water droplets have evaporated and the top most layer of the soil/leaf litter has started to dry out. Proper ventilation must be present in the enclosure to allow this humidity regulation process.

Achieving these humidity levels can be as easy and cheap as a one dollar hand mister or as complex as an automated misting system - not to be confused with an automated fogger, which only increases general humidity and doesn't create the necessary water droplets for the chameleon to drink. Misting systems, like the MistKing, can be regulated precisely with a timer and don’t disturb your pet as much as opening the doors & hand-misting.

A fogger may be used in addition to misting for nighttime humidity maintenance in lesser chameleon enclosures, but you must take great care not to overshoot appropriate humidity levels. A constantly wet environment can lead to a host of health problems.

You can measure humidity with a hygrometer like the Zoo Med Digital Combo Gauge linked in the Measuring Temperature section. These are the products we recommend for maintaining and monitoring humidity for lesser chameleons:

Brumation

Lesser chameleons don't brumate like many larger reptiles, but they should see a reduction in light and temperature in the winter, this precise schedule is covered in the "Lighting" section above.

Feeding Guide

Lesser chameleons are pure insectivores, meaning they require a diet of insects only.

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Lesser Feeding
Photo by Frank Payne

Here is a basic feeding schedule for a pet lesser chameleon:

AGEFEEDINGS
JuvenilesEvery day
AdultsEvery other day


For each feeding, offer as many appropriately-sized bugs as your chameleon can eat in about 10 minutes. Appropriately-sized feeders should be about the length between the chameleon's eyes. Mealworms and other slender worms can be longer.

The key to a healthy, balanced diet is variety, so make sure to provide as many different kinds of safe insects and fruits in your chameleons' diet as possible!

Insect Options:

  • Crickets
  • Mealworms
  • Black soldier fly larvae
  • Bean beetles
  • Fruit flies
  • Dubia roach nymphs
  • Green banana roache nymphs
  • Red runner roach nymphs
  • Silkworms
  • Blue bottle flies

Treats:

Superworms can be offered as occasional treats, but are rather high in fat and phosphorus to be used as a staple feeder.

Always offer live insects to your chameleon. Dead or canned insects don’t trigger their “hunting mode,” so they most likely won’t get eaten. Gutload all insects by allowing them to fill up on fresh produce at least 12 hours before feeding to your chameleon.

All feeders should be captive bred. Don’t feed your gecko bugs from your backyard — these can make your pet sick! Here are some sites we recommend to buy safe, captive bred feeders:

Calcium & Vitamin Supplements

To make sure that your lesser chameleon is getting all of the vitamins and minerals that its body needs, it’s important to use calcium and vitamin supplements as part of their diet.

Feeder insects should be lightly dusted with supplement powder and previously gut-loaded with fresh vegetables. Repashy Calcium Plus LoD is a great supplement to use for this species, as it provides both calcium and most necessary vitamins.

Males should receive supplements at every meal, while females should only get supplements on every other meal. Swelling in the neck region is a sign of over-supplementation.

Keeping Your Lesser Chameleon Hydrated

Lesser chameleons don't need a water dish. They prefer to lap up the water droplets that have accumulated on plant leaves and the sides of the terrarium after mistings. Since this method evaporates faster than a dish, it's important to mist the enclosure at least once a day so they can stay properly hydrated.

Taming & Handling

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Lesser Handling
Photo by Frank Payne

Lesser chameleons are best as beautiful display animals rather than a “pet” that gets taken out regularly. They are generally nonaggressive and rarely bite, but are often afraid of being handled, so it should be limited as much as possible - maybe once every few weeks for 1-2 minutes, if at all. If handling is necessary, always allow the chameleon to walk onto your hand and do not grasp its body.

DO:

  • Enjoy watching your chameleon do its thing.
  • Use slow movements.
  • Let them willingly walk onto your hand when necessary.
  • Wash hands before and after handling.

DO NOT:

  • Handle more than once every few weeks.
  • Handle for more than a few minutes at a time.
  • Grasp their body.
  • Let children handle them without strict supervision.

Health Conditions

Here are some common health problems to look out for.

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Lesser Health
Photo by Frank Payne

Possible illnesses and health problems in lesser chameleons include metabolic bone disease, intestinal parasites, impaction, and respiratory infections. Providing proper husbandry, diet, and supplements should help avoid most health issues, but if your chameleon is displaying potential symptoms of illness, it’s important to take them to an experienced reptile veterinarian right away for diagnosis and treatment. Do not try to treat them at home, as you could make the problem worse!

Signs of a healthy chameleon:

  • Slender, muscular body
  • Smooth, flush skin
  • Full, round eyes
  • Straight spine and limbs
  • Breathing with mouth closed
  • Firm, dark poo with white urates
  • Eats regularly
  • Moves quickly and easily
  • Alert attitude

Signs of an unhealthy chameleon:

  • Visible tail bones
  • Curved limbs
  • Kinked spine
  • Excessive weight gain
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Breathing with mouth open
  • Runny stool
  • No bowel movements for extended period of time