About Chameleons for Kids

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Chameleons, a family of reptiles, possess a number of interesting traits that create wonder in children and adults alike. Independently moving eyes, color-changing skin and sticky tongues are among their more unusual characteristics, but this group of animals offers much more.

The long, sticky tongue and prehensile tail give this chameleon away.
The long, sticky tongue and prehensile tail give this chameleon away. (Image: Cathy Keifer/iStock/Getty Images)

Old World Creatures

Science knows about approximately 150 species of chameleons, all of which are native to the Old World, primarily Africa and Madagascar. The Indian chameleon lives in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while the common chameleon lives in Spain, Portugal and islands in the Mediterranean. Others live in the Middle East or a few islands throughout the Indian Ocean.

Dinnertime Habits

Like many other reptiles of the same general size, most chameleons feed almost exclusively on insects. Throughout their native ranges, insects on the chameleons' menu include locusts, grasshoppers, crickets and mantises. They use their independent, cone-shaped eyes to locate prey.

The chameleon has one of the strongest, most powerful tongues in the animal kingdom. Since chameleons can't move very quickly, they strike with their tongues, which have a powerful muscle on the tip that attaches to their insect prey with suction, and quickly drag their tongues back into their mouths to eat. The tongue can shoot out at 1/125 second; it can be longer than the chameleon's body.

Gripping Characteristics

Most, but not all, chameleons are arboreal, meaning they live in trees. Some live in small bushes or even sand dunes. Because of this tricky habitat preference, chameleons have prehensile tails, meaning they can grasp onto things -- like tree branches -- with their tails while moving along. Their toes are usually fused together into claws, allowing them to grip branches and other surfaces as they walk. These tails and clawlike feet allow them to walk in the trees with reduced risk of falling.

Pet Chameleons

Because there are so many different species and subspecies of chameleons in the pet trade, it's important to understand the distinct characteristics of your specific pet species. An arboreal chameleon needs things to climb, while a desert species will prefer rocks and other types of materials. They also need particular humidity levels and temperatures, which are specific to different species. Enough space to move about is important for all captive animals. Chameleons are solitary creatures by habit, so keep only one per enclosure.

The veiled chameleon, a common pet species, for example, should have housing that measures a minimum of 4 feet of length, 3 feet of width and 4 feet of height. Humidity for this species should be 80 percent, while temps should be 80 to 85 degrees during the day and 70 to 75 degrees at night.

Gut-loaded insects, such as crickets, mealworms and waxworms dusted with a chameleon-specific supplement make ideal food sources for this species. Water is important; always have a large bowl of fresh, chlorine-free water in your chameleon's enclosure.

Tip: Chameleons require moving water because they don't recognize standing water -- so add a small bubbler or fountain the water dish to keep it moving or rippling.

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