The pygmies are a complex of very small chameleons from the subfamily Brookesiinae, grouped into three genus’s - Brookesia, Rieppeleon and Rhampholeon, that are growing in popularity due to their small size and interest as terrarium subjects for those keepers with limited space or a particular interest in dwarf or pygmy lizard species. Just like their larger relatives, the pygmies have all of the same physiological characteristics unique to the chameleon family, including stereoscopic (independently moving) eyes, a spring-loaded prehensile tongue for catching prey and zygodactylous feet for gripping and climbing between branches. However, they have also developed many interesting characteristics that have allowed them to adapt to their very specific lifestyles - unlike their arboreal cousins who avoid predation by seeking refuge in the forest canopy, most pygmy species spend a lot of time on or close down to the forest floor trawling through the leaf litter in search of the tiny vertebrates that make up their diet, and have developed superb leaf-like camouflage to conceal them from predators. Pygmy chameleons rarely exceed 3 inches in length, with females usually being slightly larger than males, with most species having very short immobile tails, hence their other nickname of ‘Stump-Tailed’ chameleons. This article aims to provide an overview of the captive care of pygmy chameleons, including an introduction to four of the pygmy species currently available in the pet trade.
Naturalistic all-glass style enclosures such as the Exo-Terra and Zoo Med glass terrariums are widely used to house many pygmy chameleon species as they allow appropriate levels of humidity to be retained inside whilst the mesh lids provide essential ventilation and air circulation to prevent bacterial growth and the development of respiratory infections. Modified aquariums converted to accommodate tightly fitting mesh lids may also be used although the lack of front access can make glass cleaning and habitat maintenance more cumbersome, especially when live plants are used. Wooden vivaria are not generally recommended as the humidity and regular misting needed to keep pygmy chameleons healthy and well hydrated can create problems if the moisture penetrates into the wood and causes it to swell or rot. As a guide, keepers should aim to provide a minimum of 40 cubic litres (equivalent to an enclosure with dimensions of 12 x 12 x 18 inches) for a pair of chameleons measuring no more than 2-3 inches in length. Male pygmy chameleons are highly territorial and should not be housed together as they will fight, although a single male will cohabit happily with one or more females.
An aesthetically pleasing and naturalistically furnished vivarium is not only enjoyable for the keeper but important in providing a range of habitat areas to allow the pygmy chameleons to express their full range of behaviours including basking, feeding, resting, drinking and conspecific interaction. Cork or coco fibre panels fixed to the back wall and sides with non-fungicidal aquarium silicon provide a natural looking background and allows the chameleons to make use of these surfaces for climbing, in addition to twisted grape wood or artificial vines and cork branches. Hardy, low-maintenance live plants such as pothos (Devils’ Ivy - Epipremnum aureum), umbrella plants (Schefflera arboricola) and Wandering Jew (Spiderwort - Tradescantia fluminensis) are widely available in many garden centres, but should be thoroughly washed and re-potted into a fertiliser and pesticide-free substrate such as Exo-Terra’s plantation soil, sphagnum moss or coco humus before being installed in the terrarium.
The addition of ‘living substrates’ containing custodian insects – tiny invertebrates such as tropical springtails (Folsomia candida) and woodlice (Porcellio scaber) that feed on decomposing livefood, fungal matter and animal waste – was originally used in housing tropical amphibians such as tree frogs, but is becoming increasingly popular in the maintenance of other species including pygmy chameleon habitats. The addition of these beneficial insects to the substrate is useful in that they will quickly consume and therefore dispose of waste matter in the terrarium which would otherwise build up and promote bacterial and fungal growth, so providing a natural and low-maintenance method of keeping the terrarium relatively clean and free of organic debris. Starter colonies of custodians are available to purchase from several online tree frog supply shops, and can be easily cultivated and maintained in the terrarium by providing a deep layer of moist, pesticide-free substrate such as Eco Earth or Plantation Soil over a 1 inch deep drainage layer of hydroleca or pea gravel. The substrate layer should then be topped with a scattering of mosses, bark and dried oak, coco, bamboo and bromeliad leaves to replicate the terrestrial environment pygmy chameleons use for hunting and feeding.
Unlike their larger relatives who often require higher temperatures and an increased output UV lighting, the small size and terrestrial habits of pygmy chameleons - who spend the majority of their time on the shady forest floor and in low-level shrubs and plants – means they have evolved to live at relatively cool temperatures and have a lower requirement for UV light exposure. In captivity, most pygmy species including the popular Bearded Pygmy can be maintained at a daytime temperature of 22-24°C (71.6 -75.2°F) with a night-time temperature of 16-20°C (60.8-68°F). However, it should be noted that these small lizards do not cope well in extremes of temperature, and care should be taken to ensure they do not overheat during hot summer days when even a couple of hours at temperatures exceeding 28°C (82.4°F) could prove disastrous. During the winter, it is equally important to ensure your pygmy chameleons do not become chilled, so a thermostatically controlled heat-mat affixed to one side of the enclosure may be used to provide additional warmth if required, particularly at night. Pygmy chameleons do not require a basking heat bulb, but a 10 hour photoperiod using a 2% UV full spectrum lighting system is recommended in providing a regular day-night cycle for the chameleons as well as stimulating the growth of live plants in the terrarium itself.
Like many small lizards, pygmy chameleons drink mainly from droplets of water on plant leaves which can be provided using either an automated misting system or a twice-daily spraying of the enclosure with a handheld spray bottle to maintain a relative terrarium humidity of 70-80% – the use of water bowls should be avoided as there is a risk that the chameleons may drown even in very small volumes of water, while decorative waterfalls are also not recommended as they tend to become quickly clogged with dead livefood and present an ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Pygmys are particularly sensitive to the presence of chlorine and heavy metal traces in their drinking water, so the use of a terrarium water conditioner to remove these harmful compounds is strongly advised.
One of the great delights in keeping pygmy chameleons as terrarium subjects is in observing them during hunting and feeding. A wide variety of livefoods are readily accepted by most species, including hatchling brown crickets, hatchling locusts, curly winged and greater fruit flies, waxmoth larvae and adult wax moths, and freshly moulted mini meal worms. All feeder insects should be gut-loaded to increase their nutritional value using a mixture of grated potato and carrot, pulverised high-protein cat or dog biscuits and fish flakes. A broad-spectrum multivitamin and calcium supplement should be dusted lightly over feeder insects twice a week (three times for gravid females and youngsters). Hatchlings and small juveniles will require very tiny invertebrate prey and starter cultures for flightless fruit flies and springtails purchased from livefood specialists will provide a source of food for several weeks at a time.
The most commonly available species, the Bearded Pygmy (often referred to as ‘Brevs’ by keepers as an abbreviation of their Latin name) is one of the hardiest and most outgoing species of pygmies, with adults reaching a maximum size of approximately 3 inches. Originating from the lowland forests surrounding the Uluguru Mountains of Tanzania in the tropical biome of East Africa, these small chameleons are superbly camouflaged, resembling dry leaves in their shape and appearance and ranging in colour from shades of brown and grey, with green or sandy coloured patterns and a distinct lateral stripe running horizontally along the flanks. A small ridge of raised scales under the chin gives this species its common name. Adult males may be visually distinguished from females by the appearance of a more prominent crest along the spine and a longer, more tapered tail shape compared to that of the female, which is shorter and blunter in shape. Bearded Pygmy’s adapt well to captivity and will often breed and lay eggs with little or no special attention or preparations and UK captive bred youngsters are becoming increasingly available for sale as a result. Newly hatched babies are very tiny and delicate, often no more than 1.5cm in length.
The Kenyan Pygmy originates from the dry forests and scrublands of the Mombasa district in Kenya_,_ and so prefer a slightly lower ambient humidity than R.brevicaudatus. They tend to have a slightly more elongated body shape than Bearded pygmy’s but share a similar palette of colourations and markings, being mainly tans, browns and deep greens. Although a popular alternative to Bearded pygmy’s for novice keepers, Kenyans are not as widely available and most individuals in the UK pet trade are imported as wild caught specimens, however they generally adapt quite well in captivity if provided with plenty of foliage to hide in and a varied diet.
Another Tanzanian species from the Shengena Mountain region, these are still very new to the UK pet market and demand a considerable price tag as well as careful attention to husbandry, being less forgiving and more prone to stress-related disorders than other pygmy species. Reaching an adult size of 2.5 – 3 inches with longer tails and a moss green colouration, Green Pygmy’s are a particularly sought after and attractive species. WC specimens tend to be shy and should not be handled unless absolutely necessary.
An extremely rare and often expensive but beautiful little chameleon, this species originates from the topical rainforests surrounding the Nguru mountains in East Africa and is distinguished by the presence of a circular projection at the end of its’ snout and small twig-like decorations on top of the eye turrets. Their colours vary in shades of browns, greens and greys with the males displaying blue highlights on their chins and legs when displaying to females. This species is only really suitable for advanced keepers and the use of an automatic misting system is recommended to provide the higher humidity levels of 75-90% that this species prefers. Occasionally juvenile Nguru pygmy’s are confused with R.viridis, so those keepers aiming to breed the species should take care to ensure their specimens are the true R.acuminatus.