Everything You Should Know about Jackson’s Chameleons

This site may contain affiliate links. Disclosure

Jackson’s chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii) is a readily available montane chameleon and one of the most popular pet chameleons.

There are three subspecies Trioceros jacksonii, i.e., Jackson’s chameleon (T. jacksonii jacksonii), the dwarf Jackson’s chameleon (T. jacksonii merumontanus), and the yellow-crested Jackson’s chameleon (T. jacksonii xantholophus).

Of the three, the yellow-crested Jackson’s chameleon is the largest and most commonly available in the exotic pet trade industry and what you will find in Hawaii and the mainland USA. T. jacksonii jacksonii isn’t common in the pet trade industry, and only a small number of the dwarf Jackson’s chameleons are available for sale.

Jackson's Chameleon or the three horned chameleon
Jackson’s Chameleon or the three horned chameleon

Classification

  • Family: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Iguania
  • Family: Chamaeleonidae
  • Genus: Trioceros
  • Species: Trioceros jacksonii

Quick facts

Other namesJackson’s horned chameleon, Kikuyu three-horned chameleon, or three-horned chameleon
LifespanIn captivity, Jackson’s chameleon can live for 5-10 years or more, depending on their diet, sex, habitat, and health (males live longer than females). While in the wild, they will live much shorter.
SizeFully grown Jackson’s chameleons are 6 to 15 inches long from snout to tail tip, and their tail accounts for about half their length. Males are larger than females, typically 10-15 inches, while females are between 6-10 inches.
WeightJackson’s chameleons’ body weight depends on their size, and it usually ranges from 90 to 150 grams.
Native toSouth Central parts of Kenya and Northern Tanzania woodlands and forests with altitudes 5,250 to 8,010 ft. However, they have successfully been introduced in Hawaii (especially Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Islands), California and Florida. 
Sexual maturity ageJackson’s chameleons attain sexual maturity at 5-7 months of age. Some sources put the period at 9 or 10 months (1)(2)
Sexual dimorphismThey show sex dimorphic traits shortly after they are born. Males will grow three horns, have a parietal crest, and are larger than females. However, in few instances, some females may have 1 or 3 smaller horns.
Mode of reproductionOvoviviparous, i.e., they bear young living ones and have a gestation period being about 5-7month and they can give birth to a brood of up to 20 offspring.
Dormancy typeNone
TemperamentDocile and easy to handle (won’t show any aggressiveness easily). However, as shy and solitary creatures, they prefer being left alone, and handling may stress them. Don’t expect the same affectionate from these exotic pets as your bearded dragon.
Bite, sting, venomous, or attackOrdinarily, they don’t bite. However, if handled roughly, these chameleons may hiss and even bite you. Their bites are painful but not venomous or toxic to humans. Clean any bitten place with warm soapy water and disinfect it.    
BehaviorsJackon’s chameleons are territorial, solitary (love being alone), and color change (not match the background). Also, Jackson’s chameleons may flatten their body, gape their mouth, lunge their head (jerk), bite, curl tails, inflate themselves, and on occasional instances, produce soft hisses with bobbing and swaying.
When activeDiurnal or active during the day
Care levelAdvanced, i.e., they have complex needs and are susceptible to stress that will affect their health.
Best suited forIntermediate to experienced reptile owners or advanced reptile hobbyist.
Legal in the USYes. Jackson’s chameleons are legal in the US. However, being invasive and due to their devastating effects on Hawaiian native invertebrates’ ecosystem, it is illegal to commercially export them out of Hawaii or move them from one island to another. (3)

Description and appearance

Male Jackson’s chameleons have three brownish horns making them resemble a miniature version of the triceratops dinosaurs that existed millions of years ago. One horn emerges from their nose (rostral horn), and the other two on top of each eye. However, females don’t have the three horns, but some subspecies may have a smaller rostral horn.

Their zygodactylous feet have five digits, divided into two bundles, three pointing forward and two inwards, each with a yellowish claw.

These chameleons have a long tongue (about 14 centimeters), which they can move at lightning speed to capture their prey, their mouths are pink inside, and their lips are yellowish.

Furthermore, these exotic reptiles can also rotate their eyes 180 degrees centigrade, and the base of their eyes is yellowish.

Finally, they are mostly bright green with some hint of blue and yellow. However, they can quickly change their color in response to temperature, emotions, or health, but they don’t match their backgrounds.

Housing and habitat

To be happy, healthy, and live long, Jackson’s chameleons require the right enclosure or cage type, size, and optimum habitat conditions (humidity, temperature, and lighting), a safe substrate, and various enrichments.

Also, an ideal cage should be escape-proof (lockable) and should keep away predators such as snakes, birds, shrews, carnivorous spiders, and so on or even access by your other house pets. Cats in particular love climbing and perching, and they may do so on your chameleon cage, something that will stress them.

Finally, place their cage where there is little human traffic to minimize disruptions and out of your cats’ rich (they love climbing). You can also set it outside if the weather conditions are favorable. However, put in place measures to ensure it doesn’t overheat.

1. Three-horned chameleon living arrangement

Since they are territorial and prefer a solitary life, we highly recommend that you house Jackson’s chameleons alone or individually. They can’t tolerate even their kind, especially males, i.e., seeing each other is enough to stress them to the extent of affecting their health.

If housed together, these exotic pets may fight (gaping, bite or poke each other) or compete for resources, something that will cause low-grade stress that is detrimental to their health. They may also breed.

However, if you have babies, you can house them together for the first up to three months. Afterward, they will start being territorial and aggressive to each other. Also, a male may co-exist with one or two females so long as the cage is large enough to give each of them a chance to establish their territory.

Finally, if you have several, they shouldn’t see each other from their cages as they will still perceive each other as threats, something that will stress them. A sight of another chameleon even within a distance of up to six meters is enough to distress them.

2. Tank type or material of construction  

Jackson’s chameleons should be kept in a screen or mesh cage or enclosure (the most commonly used and the best choice).

You can use cages made from PVC, glass, or plexiglass (they are the best in dry areas as they can help retain humidity). However, they may encourage molding and mildew (which will cause respiratory illnesses and infections) since these exotic pets thrive in relatively high humidity. A solution would be combining screens and glass or plexiglass.

Also, enclosures made from glass or plexiglass should be covered three sides from the inside with newspaper or paper towel to prevent your chameleon from seeing its reflection.

A sight of its reflection will make them think it is another chameleon, which will stress them, especially males.  However, babies can live in glass cages such as the Naturalistic Terrarium®.

Finally, avoid fine metal, aluminum, or fiberglass mesh that is not coated (may cause foot injury). Also, ensure any sharp edges or ends are protected with rubber or plastic.

2. Ideal cage size

A perfect cage should be spacious, and since Jackson’s chameleons are arboreal (they live on trees), it should have enough vertical space. Also, the horizontal (width and length) should be sufficient.

Your enclosure’s exact size will depend on the size of your chameleon, which may correlate to their age and gender. Typical cage or enclosure sizes should be as follows:

  • Babies and juveniles: Newborns and youngsters can live in 16″ long by 16″ wide by 30″ high for up to the first 7-8 months.
  • Adults: They mature once they are 8-12 months but may continue adding weight until about two years. Adult Jackson’s chameleons should be at least 24″ wide by 24″ long by 36″ high, i.e., 2ft. x 2ft. x 3ft (L x W x H) while smaller adults can live in an 18inch x 18inch x 36 inch (L x W x H)

While some people may opt for free-range keeping, especially those with multiple chameleons and a garden, free-range keeping has pros and cons.

3. Substrate

When it comes to a substrate for Jackson’s chameleon enclosure, go for solid substrates such as butcher papers, plain papers, paper towels, or newspapers. They are affordable, and you will quickly notice urates and fecal matter.

If you are willing to spend a little money on a substrate, the most recommended option is Zoo Med Eco Carpet as it looks great, is easy to clean, and is very safe.

Some people use peat moss, topsoil, coconut fiber, and so on. Ensure they are moist but not soggy and there is adequate ventilation to avoid molding and mildew growing. Unfortunately, you won’t see fecal or urates output for spot clean with easy.  

What to avoid: Avoid any particulate substrate such as wood chips or sand as they will easily stick on your pet’s sticky tongue as they try to capture their prey. Such substrates will lead to impaction if ingested. Also, avoid cedar bedding, perlite, or vermiculite.

4. Habitat conditions

Once you have the right cage and tank in place, the next important thing you should ensure is optimum habitat conditions, i.e., temperature, humidity, and full-spectrum ultraviolet light.

a). Temperature and heat lamps

During the day, maintain a temperature gradient of 70-80 °F (21-26.5°C) for your Jackson’s chameleon with basking spot temperature not exceeding 85 °F (29°C) (ideally about 82-85°F) and a cooler side having as low as 70°F (21°C) to give these reptiles a chance to decide if they want to be on the basking spot or not. However, they shouldn’t stay at 85°F (29°C) or above for a long time.

At night, Jackson’s chameleon requires temperature drop to about 60°F (15.5°C), but they can tolerate much lower temperatures of up to 50°F (10°C).

To attain these temperatures, invest in basking lamps such as PowerSun during the day.

On the other hand, if the temperature falls below 50°F at night, get a non-light emitting heater for nighttime, such as a ceramic heat emitter, since these pets are diurnal and sleep in darkness.

For heating, you can go for various heating solutions, including mercury vapor lamps, metallic-halide lamps, halogen basking lamps (incandescent), infrared lamps, space heaters, etc. Heat mats, cables, strips, pads, or rocks are not ideal for chameleons.

Finally, to help measure temperature, we recommend at least two accurate thermometers, one on the basking spot and the other on the cooler side. Also, it would be best if you had thermostats to help regulate temperature.

b). Lighting

Jackson’s chameleons require full-spectrum ultraviolet light (emits visible light, UVA, and UVB light just like the natural sunlight) for 10-12 hours a day. Therefore, invest in UV light bulbs and note that they need replacement after six months or as the manufacturer recommends.

Visible light helps regulate the wake-sleep cycle and lets them see, while UVB light is essential in synthesizing vitamin D3. However, note that UVB doesn’t penetrate glass or plastic but can penetrate a screen.

Note that these exotic reptiles can also benefit from sunlight, i.e., you want to take them outside as long as you ensure their cage doesn’t overheat. Temperatures above 90°F (32°C) are detrimental to their health.

Finally, having reptile timers can help automate when lights and heat go off or come on. You don’t have to do it manually.

c). Humidity

The ideal humidity for Jackson’s chameleon is 50-80%. During the night, the humidity can go as high as 100%. However, the cages should be well ventilated to allow free air circulation and prevent surfaces from being wet throughout the day.

Otherwise, expect mildew and mold. Also, constant contact with a wet surface may cause sores on your pet’s feet, giving way to bacterial, molding, or fungal infections.

To keep humidity high, buy a fogger such as Repti Fogger or any good humidifier. You can also mist their habitat twice a day to help raise humidity.

Exo Terra has a good mister, or you can buy automatic misters such as MistKing or AquaZamp that allow you to set specific time intervals. However, ensure they don’t mist the whole cage, i.e., keep the basking area and a few other places dry.

Finally, buy at least two hygrometers to help in measuring humidity in your cage.

5. Décor and furniture

Since Jackson’s horned chameleons are tree-living reptiles (arboreal), ensure their enclosure offers a lot of vertical dimension for climbing as well as a basking and hiding place.

Therefore, have many climbing branches of varying diameters, shapes, and sizes and non-poisonous potted plants or artificial (fake) plants.

Artificial jungle vines or live plants such as hibiscus, dracaena compacta, rubber tree, bromeliads, jade plants, yucca, spider plant, ficus trees, etc., are an excellent choice. However, note that ficus trees have an irritating sap.

When choosing artificial cage plants, ensure they can withstand the various temperatures in this cage.

Furthermore, as you choose plants to place in the cage, ensure they have broad foliage that will offer a hiding place (makes them feel secure). The foliage will also allow dew formation, which is a primary source of water that these chameleons drink.  

Finally, don’t use bird perches or cotton ropes (they may entrap their feet).

Diet, feeding, and nutrition

Jackson’s chameleons are carnivores, i.e., mainly insectivorous but may preying on other invertebrates. Although they are very slow, these reptiles are very successful predators.

While in the wild, they will feed on mainly small insects. However, they may also devour slugs, snails, worms, centipedes, bees, wasps, small beetles, spiders, isopods, and other invertebrates, as well as lizards and tiny birds.

They also need a lot of water to stay hydrated. Usually, they get their water from their foods and licking droplets off leaves, including after it rains.

1. Food list

In captivity, you need to feed your Jackson’s chameleons various feeder insects and other small invertebrates.

a). Foods to offer them

Crickets are considered one of Jackson’s horned chameleon’s ideal daily diet since they are nutritionally balanced. However, they can also eat grasshoppers, locusts, roaches, black solider larvae (Calci-worms or phoenix worms), and black soldier flies.

Additionally, they can eat snails (with shells), slugs, caterpillars, fruit flies, stick insects, silkworms, hornworms, flies, centipede, some spiders, sowbugs, mantis hatchlings, sphinx moth, and so on.

b). What to feed occasionally or as treats

Due to their lower level of nutrients, mealworms, butterworms, waxworms, and kingworms (superworms) should be provided as a treat or as a small part of their occasional diet.

c). Commercial foods

If you don’t prefer dealing with live insects or bugs, you can go for commercial Jackson’s chameleon foods. They are nutritionally balanced, don’t need dusting with vitamin D3 or calcium. However, not all chameleons will recognize them as food.

d). A few vegetables

Although they are not omnivores, it is no uncommon for the three-horned chameleons to eat a few vegetables, greens, and bee pollen.

Therefore, besides the live plants inside their cage, offer them a bit of “collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, sugar snap pea pods, bean sprouts, sliced apples along with others,” notes The Chameleon Information Network (CIN). However, they shouldn’t eat lettuce, cabbage, or spinach.

Offer these vegetables together with feeder insects in a suspended jar, and your chameleon will eat them as they feed on insects.

e). What to avoid

Don’t feed wild caught insects or invertebrates (may be soaked with insecticides), insects intended to be used as fish bait, fireflies, ladybugs, some spiders, monarchy butterflies, and their grubs, some ants, glowing worms, or any other toxic, harmful or poisonous insects to these pets.

2. Drinking water

Jackson’s chameleons need a lot of drinking water to stay hydrated. While you may get recommendations to buy a drinking bowl, not all will learn to drink stagnant water. Instead, most chameleons lick dew or water droplets on the leaf surface.

Therefore, they will lick water droplets on foliage if you mist their cage. For people who use foggers to help maintain humidity, we recommend having a drip system to help keep these reptiles hydrated.

3. Feeding Jackson’s chameleons

Always gut-load feeder insects before offering them to this exotic pet maximum nutritional benefit. However, unlike their tropical counterparts, these montane chameleons don’t need a lot of supplements.

Therefore, lightly dust feeder insects with calcium once in two weeks, while calcium with vitamin D3 and multivitamins can be dusted once a month.

An ideal supplement should not have phosphorus, or its ratio to calcium should be less than 1:2. Also, avoid any supplements that high in vitamin A as it causes toxicity.

When offering them food, you can perch their feeding bowl or jar on one of the branches instead of placing it down on the cage floor.

A typical feeding schedule for the three-horned chameleon is as follows:

AgeNumber of insects
Babies (1-3 months)Let your Jackson’s baby chameleon eat extra small insects (smaller than the space between their eyes) as many as they can and feed them twice a day. Ideal insects include pinhead crickets, smallest black soldier larvae, small dubia roaches, fruit flies, and so on.
Juveniles (3-6 months)Feed them 10-12 small crickets (or insects of similar size) once a day and reduce the amount to 10 medium insects once they attain six months of age.
subadults (6-12 months)8-10 medium crickets (or insects of comparable size) daily
Adults (above 12 months)Adults should eat 5-7 medium to large crickets a day or after every other day or other insects that are of comparable sizes.

Additional feeding tips:

  • Ensure feeder insects are smaller than the space between their eyes, except for a few that are soft-bodied.
  • Always remove any uneaten insects or bugs since some, such as crickets, may bite your chameleon at night.
  • Vary the insects and other invertebrates you give them
  • Experiment to see what they like most.

Jackson’s chameleon Care – Handling and habitat maintenance

These chameleons are sensitive to handling (stresses them), and you need to minimize it as much as possible. You can do a lot with them, such as watch them devour their prey and not necessarily, touch or hold them.

Warning

While they are one of the least carriers of zoonotic disease, like other reptiles and amphibians, Jackson’s chameleons carry zoonotic diseases like salmonella. Therefore, wash your hands with warm soapy water before and after handling them or the habitat, poop, urine, shed skin, and so on.

Also, as CDC advises, kids below the age of 5 years, older adults above 65, or persons with compromised immunity shouldn’t handle any reptiles or amphibians, including touching their habitats.

1. Handling

Minimize handling Jackson’s chameleons as much as possible. These are not typical affection pets that need petting or holding. While many may tolerate it, some will hate it. Also, don’t expect these exotic pets to crawl to your hand and start climbing on you. Only a few will do so.

However, during vet visits, cleaning, moving to a new housing unit, and so on, handing them may be necessary.

To begin with, after bringing one home, leave her alone for up to two weeks. Just monitor her to be sure she is eating and drinking usually, and she is healthy. At this stage, all you can do is watch and admire this fantastic critter. She needs time to adjust.

Afterward, try feeding her with a tong (not less than 6 inches). One with a silicon tip will work best as it won’t hurt her tongue. She may decide to eat it or not, but she is likely to eat if hungry.

Continue feeding your chameleon with a tongue and never grab her as it will damage your relationship and harm their body, especially her fragile ribs.  Instead, associated handling with snacks, food, or something pleasant but keep the time to less than 5-10 minutes, once or twice a week as the whole experience is stressful. 

While handling the three-horned chameleons, consider their body language and color cue. Bright colors will mean they feel threatened, dull submissive, but black or dark indicates they are sick or very stressed.

If you have to carry them, push your hand under their body let them grasp your fingers. Afterward, you can lift them. Be careful not to injure or break their tail as it doesn’t regenerate or grow back, and NEVER carry them by their tail.

2. Cleaning and maintenance

Cleaning will involve daily cleaning or spot cleaning whenever you notice urates or feces and thorough periodical cleaning:

a). Daily cleaning and spot cleaning

It will involve wiping and cleaning their poop off surfaces (foliage, cage, or any surface) with a damp cloth, paper towel, or sponge and a good reptile safe cage cleaner like Zoo Med Wipe Out or even chlorhexidine solution.

Also, remove any uneaten food, pick leaves, shed skin, and clean before disinfecting their feeding jar or bowl as well as their water bowl.

b). Thoroughly cleaning (weekly or after two weeks)

During thorough cleaning, move your Kikuyu three-horned chameleon to a temporary holding place, and dismantle the enclosure removing all light and heat fixtures, thermometers, hygrometers, décor, furniture, and substrate.

Then, thoroughly scrub, clean, wipe, disinfect and rinse any non-adsorbent surface with a safe reptile cleaner such as Zoo Med Wipe Out 1 Disinfectant. Also, wipe any dirt on plant foliage (fake or live plants), cage surface, and wash the reptile mat (if you use it).

Use a toothbrush to clean hard to reach areas and a putty knife or scrapper to get rid of anything stuck on the cage.

Rinse all surfaces, let them dry before reassembling everything, and returning your chameleon to their cage.

3. Additional care for Kikuyu three-horned chameleon

Your chameleon may act restless, eat less, have white spots, rub her body on branches, and her skin will look dry during shedding.

To aid shedding, turn on the fogger to ensure optimum humidity and consider misting your chameleon twice a week to promote shedding.

Finally, you can wipe off any shed skin pieces with a damp cotton swab. However, don’t attempt to pull or forcefully remove any skin that doesn’t come off.

4. Scratches and bites

In case of bites or scratches during handling, thoroughly wash the affected area with warm soapy water and apply a disinfectant since, as we said, they may carry zoonotic disease and parasites.

Health and parasites

Healthy Jackson’s chameleon should have inflated clear and alert eyes that turn around, a mouth that closes completely, feet with all toes and nails, and can grasp.

This reptile should balance well when moving and have no discharges from any of its openings (cloaca, nose, or mouth).

Finally, their mouth should have typical colors, and they should not have any bruises, injuries, cuts, broken skin, swollen parts, or any skin discolorations  

1. Signs of illness

To tell that your Jackson’s chameleon isn’t well, here are typical signs or symptoms to expect:

  • Not eating or loss of appetite
  • Not drinking as usual
  • Diarrhea, runny stool or foul-smelling feces, or inability to pass stool
  • Vomiting
  • Sunken eyes
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Mucus in the nasal passage
  • Wrinkly and saggy skin
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Stunted growth
  • Limb deformities (broken limbs, double or twisted knee or elbow joints)
  • Mouth not closing well
  • Swellings on any body part, including legs, feet, ankles, or elbow joints
  • Swollen gums, yellow pus on their mouth, black scabs, and black teeth
  • Breathing difficulties, wheezing, or crackling sound
  • Discharges
  • Skin problems or discoloration such as scaly patches, white bumps, black blisters
  • Eye problems – puffy, crusty, or teary eyes
  • Tail turning black
  • Lump on pelvis
  • Limping, no grip, missing body part
  • Sleeping during the day
  • Stress

2. Common disease and conditions

The most commonly noted diseases and conditions that afflict Jackson’s  chameleons include the following:

  • Dehydration
  • Metabolic bone disease
  • Edema
  • Gout
  • Mouth rot
  • Tongue problems
  • Respiratory infections
  • Thermal burns
  • Vitamin A deficiency
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Egg binding
  • Tail rot
  • Kidney failure
  • Edema

3. Common parasites

The Jackson’s chameleons are prone to internal parasites and may suffer from external parasites too. Some of the common parasites they may have to include:

  • Coccidia and cryptosporidia
  • Flagellates
  • Microsporidia
  • Flukes
  • Rhabditis
  • Strongylidae
  • Spirurida   
  • Amoebiasis
  • Filarioidea
  • Oxyurids
  • Worms like tapeworm, pinworms, roundworm, hairworms, maw worms, and so on
  • Ticks
  • Mites

4. Vet care or checkup

Once you purchase new Jackson’s chameleons, take them to your herp veterinarian for a general health status check. Afterward, they should go for checkups after every 6-12 months.

Jackson’s chameleon supply list

To summarize, some of the essential supplies that your Jackson’s chameleon requires include the following:

  • Cage or enclosure
  • Substrate  
  • Heat lamps
  • UV bulbs
  • Hygrometers (at least two)
  • Thermometers (at least two)
  • Thermostat
  • Light and heat fixtures
  • Reptile timers
  • Foggers or humidifiers such as a cool-mist ultrasonic humidifier 
  • Misters
  • Feeding bowls or jars
  • Water bowls or a drip system
  • Artificial and safe live plants
  • Feeder insects
  • Multivitamins, vitamin D3, and calcium supplements
  • Disinfectants and reptile cleaning supplies

Leave a Comment