Paying it forward
Although I’m a trained biologist with a PhD, biology is not my profession. I own a coaching and training company through which I earn a living. Zoology, and herpetology in particular, is my passion and the ability to pursue this independently is a great bonus. Instead of being constrained by the requirements of grant providers or tied up with the bureaucracy of filling out pages of arduous grant applications, I can fund my own research and focus my efforts however I like.
I have no need to earn an income from herpetology and I consider my research to be my contribution to the world of herpetology, which has provided me with so much joy. There are a great many questions being asked about reptiles and so much to be learned. So, I identify a challenge which excites me and dedicate my research to finding answers. I consider it my mission to help people to understand the natural world, and to help animals and the planet in the process. It sounds like a grand ambition, and I suppose it is, but that is the task I have set for myself. It is my guiding passion.
Communicating with chameleons
Most people will know me because of my work with chameleons and particularly from my book ‘Chameleons – Nature’s Hidden Jewels’. It was first published in 1999, at about the same time when Yemen Chameleons were becoming popular in the reptile keeping hobby. Before then it was considered difficult or impossible to keep chameleons in captivity, let alone breed them. As far as I am aware I was among the first people to breed Yemen Chameleons and introduce them to the hobby. But my work with chameleons begins a few years before that time.
I saw my first Yemen Chameleon in the early 1980s when I was 14 years old. My father was working in Yemen as a cardiologist and I was there visiting him. The Yemen was considered to be an unsafe territory and few people travelled there because of its reputation and the difficult border crossing issues at that time. I remember when I spotted my first chameleon – it was like a spiritual experience, like magic. It was about a metre and a half from me, a colourful male which was standing still like it was frozen, watching me. I felt very strongly that I had connected with this animal, and from that day forward, it would be my job to help humans learn about chameleons. It was as if the chameleon spoke to me, telling me that I must learn all I can and help to spread their message. I saw my future, in the jungle and deserts, living with the chameleons day and night. I know this sounds crazy, but this was exactly as I perceived it at the time. It was like a spiritual experience – an awakening.
Over the next few years I visited the Yemen on several occasions and spent as much time as I possibly could observing the chameleons, not only during the daytime but also at night. By the time I was 18 years old I had imported several specimens back to the Czech Republic and these became my breeding colony. At this time there was no CITES restriction and I built a breeding colony which has since produced over 230,000 babies over 15 generations.
My winning formula for breeding Chameleo calyptratus came from my deep understanding of this species in their wild environment. Once you fully understand their needs and behaviours in the wild you can begin to replicate these needs in captivity. Many people think about reptile husbandry from the wrong perspective, thinking first about the technology they might need that could work in the enclosure – but this is a mistake. Think first about their wild environment, THEN about the technology.
Chameleons in captivity
I think the reason chameleons did so badly in captivity during those early years was largely due to the stresses of transportation at that time. They would be kept in holding enclosures in large numbers for long periods of time and then shipped in inappropriate containers and sent on a journey that might last many days. By the time they reached their owner they would be already so overwhelmed with parasites that success was impossible. Many other species of reptile were kept and shipped in the same way at this time, but these other species were usually better able to withstand the stresses. Chameleons are very delicate, so most of them would be too stressed by the experience and eventually die. I think I was either the first or one of the very first people to breed them. Bringing my own chameleons back from Yemen with a deep knowledge of their wild environment is what helped me to breed them successfully. This, and the fact that, as chameleons go, Yemen Chameleons are very resilient and able to adapt, so they were more able to tolerate any mistakes I made in the early days. Producing a collection of chameleons which was parasite-free was the key to long-term reproductive success in captivity.
Yemen chameleons were introduced to the reptile trade by Ron Tremper, the renowned herpetologist from the USA. He was visiting some mutual friends in the Czech Republic and came to see me when he heard about my success with Calyptratus. “I want all of your captive bred chameleons.” he said. So I sold them to him and he took them back to the USA to breed them there. The rest is history. I think that at least 50% of the Calyptratus in the trade today come from the chameleons that Ron and I bred.
Three things to know about Calyptratus
Over the last few decades I have had the opportunity to spend long periods of time with Yemen Chameleons in the wild, and during that time I learned some amazing things. Here are my top three interesting facts:
Calyptratus have a passion for flying insects, such as flies, bees and wasps. Why? It’s because chameleons can’t move very fast, so they have developed a way to find insects that are not moving quickly. Most bugs move quickly most of the time, but flying insects are almost stationary when they land on a flower, and it is this insect behaviour that Yemen Chameleons benefit from in the wild. The chameleon will sit near a flower with its tongue ready to strike any insect that lands there. As a result, Yemen Chameleons eat a high-pollen diet. Pollen is a miracle food, full of nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and natural antibiotics. It is often thought of as the elixir of life, and this is true in these circumstances.
In the early days, most wild chameleons died through parasitic overload and bacterial infection. I’ve seen thousands of wild Calyptratus and never seen one with a bacterial infection. Why? Pollen! It’s a natural shield. I ask bee keepers to give me their pollen and I feed it to my chameleons. I have even created a campaign to spread the word about pollen for chameleons. Hopefully this article will help keepers not only to understand that they need to feed pollen to their chameleons, but also they will understand why. It comes back to my point about first understanding the chameleon’s wild environment.
2. Calcium dust
If you observe Yemen Chameleons in the wild you will see that they live in a dusty environment, despite the surrounding tropical climate. The leaves on the trees are covered in dust, and this dust plays a nutritional role. In captivity chameleons can suffer from metabolic bone disease, but in the wild this never happens. The dust in their environment contains limestone which is powdered fossilised sea shells – exactly what chameleons need to build healthy bones. The environment is thick with it. The chameleons lick it from the leaves, they breathe it in and their food is covered with this calcium rich dust. In captivity the diet of the chameleon must be covered in calcium dust. Every insect should be white with it. It is almost impossible for the chameleon to have too much calcium.
Most chameleon keepers will tell you that their animals are heavy drinkers and that they watch them drink lots of water teach time the vivarium is sprayed. This is not how it works in the wild. There you will find hardly anything to drink and chameleons spend many months of the year without drinking at all. But, despite this, you will not find a dehydrated chameleon in the wild. This only happens in captivity. To understand why you would need to spend a night with the chameleons in their native habitat.
During the daytime it is very hot and dry, but as soon as night-time arrives the environment becomes very humid, like fog. It is so humid that your clothes become soaked and you can feel the humidity when you breathe. This is how Yemen Chameleons get their moisture, from breathing in the saturated air at night when they sleep. Tiny droplets are absorbed through the lungs, so much so that they would weigh 0.5 grams heavier after spending the night asleep doing nothing but breathing.
High humidity is not enough to satisfy this need in captivity. It must be so moist as to produce fog, which is why I strongly recommend that all chameleon keepers us a fogger which is active from midnight until early morning. Yes, they can take in water which is sprayed into their enclosure, but this is not how nature intended them to drink. Drinking large amounts disrupts the intestine with tiny ruptures which are a gateway for infection. Chameleons prefer to be hydrated gradually and this is best achieved with a fogger.
All of these observations were possible because I was able to experience the animals for long periods in their wild environment, and then translate that knowledge for use in captivity. This is the only way to be successful with reptiles in captivity. It is these tiny details which can make a difference.
Life in the Yemen
Like with most things, you should not believe everything you see in the news. If you believe the media you would believe that most Arabs are violent, angry and hostile. This is very far from the truth. In reality they are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. Yes they are proud and defensive of their country after centuries of invasions and war, but they are warm hearted and happy to help strangers.
This has been my common experience each time I have visited. Poor people sit on the ground to eat their food and, as you are passing, they will ask you to join them and they will share what they have. They are kind and hospitable and eager to talk with you. I have observed very little trouble in my time there. Once, our camp was woken in the middle of the night by military police asking what we were doing in such a remote region. We explained our work and, from there, they offered us their help and experience, telling us about localities where they had seen chameleons in the past. The interrogation took no more than three minutes, and then much more time was spent speaking about chameleons.
I find that you often get what you expect in these countries. If you expect problems, you will find them. But if you are kind and friendly, wonderful things will happen. The media presents a completely false account of the Arab world. Go there yourself and see the real picture. Do not rely on official sources. See it for yourself – only then is it reliable. Don’t be misled.
My work has led to the naming of around 30 new species and subspecies. Around ten of these were already described and are being reclassified. The other 20 are being described and worked on step by step.
In February this year I was in Kenya and we found several new chameleon species – some in the wild, but others in the collection at the National Museum of Kenya where old specimen labels were not correct. However, it was the wild chameleon discoveries that were the most interesting.
We were about to leave the locality where we were working when a colleague from the Museum said that he had a Jackson’s Chameleon from this location. However, this was at least 70km away from where the nearest Jackson’s Chameleon populations had ever been found. We went to see the animal, and it turned out that he had three of them. It was immediately apparent that this was a new subspecies, very similar to Jackson’s, but with at least three significant differences. Work is being done to classify these animals accurately. It was a very exciting and lucky find.
Yemen Chameleon top tips
Here are my best tips for keeping Yemen Chameleons well:
1. Use a well-ventilated enclosure
2. Use natural materials, such as branches and plants, where possible, and avoid manmade materials
3. Use a fogger and do not force unnatural hydration through spraying
4. Do not handle your animals any more than necessary
5. Understand their nutrition and supplementation, but avoid overdoses. Too much of vitamins D, E K or A can kill
6. Do not overfeed your animal. In the wild food is not so easy to find and so obesity does not happen. In captivity the chameleon is compelled to eat because they are conditioned to think that food is rare. I have seen chameleons which are three times as heavy as a wild chameleon and this will lead to organ failure.
7. Don’t believe everything you see on the internet. So many people are able to comment online but very few are qualified to do so. Information is never black and white and can rarely be explained in short answers like you might find on a bulletin board. It’s interesting to watch people ask questions online and then listen only to the people who respond first. Just because they answer first, doesn’t mean they are correct! Look to see who is behind the comments, look at their experience and their expertise. Watch out for those who answer to satisfy their ego or their business interests.
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