What to Know About Jackson’s Chameleons

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 19, 2022
5 min read

Chameleons have long been known for their camouflage abilities. They've even lent their name as a slang term for a person who transitions easily between social groups. The Jackson’s chameleon is a type of chameleon native to East Africa and named for the famous ornithologist Frederick John Jackson.

The Jackson’s chameleon is a reptile native to African rainforests, known for its ability to camouflage itself from predators by changing color to blend in with its surroundings. Its natural color is typically some shade of green, but under stress, it can become much darker, even black.

They feature a crest on the back of the head and spines running down their backs. Males also have three horns on their heads, which are missing or underdeveloped in females. They have large eyes which can be independently controlled and rotate a full 180 degrees. They may even have the ability to magnify images by controlling the curvature of their eyes.

Their feet have five toes, two pointed inward and three pointed outward, to help them better grip the trees in which they hide. Their tails can also be used for gripping. Jackson’s chameleon size varies; some can grow to be over a foot long, while others can be under six inches. Their sticky tongue, used for catching prey, can be as long as one and a half times their full body length.

The average Jackson’s chameleon lifespan is around eight years in captivity, although their high-maintenance nature means their lives can easily be shortened by poor care. Overhandling, malnourishment, illness, underexposure to sunlight, and parasites such as mites can all cause stress and shorten the life of a captive chameleon.

The typical Jackson’s chameleon habitat is found in the mountainous regions of East Africa. They are most common in Tanzania and Kenya and prefer to live high in the trees in mountainous rainforests, only traveling groundward to mate and lay their eggs. 

Invasive species. The release of pet chameleons into the wild has caused them to become an invasive species in some areas. Hawaii in particular suffers from invasive feral Jackson’s chameleons that prey on their native insect and snail populations. They also serve as prey for other invasive species such as the brown tree snake. If you live in Hawaii, particularly in Kaua’i or Lana’i, and spot one of these reptiles, contact the local pest control office right away.

Jackson’s chameleons are insectivores, primarily subsisting on bugs they catch with their long, sticky tongues. When a Jackson's chameleon spots prey with one of its independently controlled eyes, it focuses both eyes on the insect, confirms the distance, and then shoots out its tongue to bring the bug back to its mouth.

Captive chameleons are often fed on crickets, mealworms, and fruit flies. They enjoy a variety of insects, however, including ones you can catch in your backyard. Before feeding any bug to your chameleon, make sure it is free of pesticides or parasites. You may need to supplement your Jackson’s chameleon’s diet with a vitamin powder, which can be dusted over its food.

Jackson’s chameleons are classified as threatened, in part due to the exotic pet trade. Although they can be kept as pets, they are restricted in some places, including Hawaii, due to their penchant to escape their enclosures — or be released by irresponsible breeders — and become an invasive species.

If you live in an area where keeping Jackson’s chameleons as pets is permitted, keep in mind that they are a high-maintenance breed and are easily stressed. They don’t like to be handled, so if you’re looking for a pet you can play with, you may wish to look elsewhere.

Choosing a pet. Make sure to buy your chameleon from a reputable breeder. If the animal looks sickly or thin, or seems lethargic, stay away, as it is likely to die soon after purchase. If you find mites on any of the available animals, go to another breeder entirely, as mites are easily transferred and none of the animals there will be healthy.

When examining a Jackson’s chameleon, never forcibly pick it up or pull it from its perch. This can damage its delicate toes and legs. Instead, let it crawl onto your hand on its own. Examine it thoroughly with a magnifying glass, and if it opens its mouth, check inside for sores or other indicators of infection.

Housing. Jackson’s chameleons should not be kept in a glass enclosure. Instead, they should be given a screened cage that can be rolled outside for sun exposure, or two separate screened enclosures — one inside, one outside — to provide adequate sun exposure during appropriate weather. Their enclosures should be at least two feet long, two feet wide, and three feet tall. Each chameleon should have its own enclosure. Outdoor enclosures should be secure to prevent escape and keep other animals from getting inside. Never release a pet chameleon into the wild, as it can become an invasive species.

Jackson’s chameleons need about 12 hours of full-spectrum light per day, which can be achieved by a combination of fluorescent and UV light bulbs controlled by a timer. They can be somewhat flexible on temperature, but ideally, they should be kept at about 77 degrees during the day and 62 degrees at night. They should also be given a heated basking spot that's kept around 85 degrees to help them control their body temperature. Appropriate humidity for their enclosures is 50 to 75 percent.

Hydration. Keeping Jackson’s chameleons properly hydrated is important but sometimes difficult. They don’t like to drink from a bowl, since in the wild, they typically collect water dripping from plants after rain. Instead, you’ll need to spray water into their mouths or use a timed drip system from which they can drink. Collect any fallen water in a container at the bottom of the enclosure and empty it regularly to prevent mold growth.