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A Free Range Habitat for Meller's and other Large Chameleons

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This instructible will show you how we designed and constructed a free-range habitat for our pet Meller's Chameleons. Meller's Chameleons are a particularly large species, growing almost two feet in length. To give them the space they need to thrive, we designed and built a large climate-controlled free range in one bedroom of our new house. We sought to mimic the African rainforest our pet chameleons come from.

This habitat is NOT suitable for all chameleons or captive reptiles. Please research the needs of your animals before jumping into a project like this one. My wife and I have been keeping chams for about 5 years and gradually developed the instructible you're reading right now.

A free range is a "cage without walls." The idea is to make the habitat so enjoyable to the resident, it just doesn't want to leave. Chameleons have many specific needs (temperature ranges, humidity ranges, UV light exposure and watering/drinking difficulties, so it was challenging to meet all these needs.

The range is planted with a variety of live tropical plants and artificial vines. The room is heated by an array of spotlight lamps on their own dedicated circuit and controlled by a thermostat. Ultraviolet light is furnished by shoplights with Reptisun 5.0 and 10.0 bulbs on a circuit separate from the heat lamps. The Ultraviolet lights are on a timer and provide the overall day and night rhythms.

Chameleons are fussy drinkers. They won't drink from a bowl, only from "rainwater." To simulate this, an automated misting system rains on our monsters 4 times a day and a drainage system carries the excess water and waste away outside the house where it waters and feeds our vegetable garden. The entire system is protected from leaks by a moisture-sensor product that shuts off the water at the source.

So, enough verbosity! Let me show you how we did it!

This is an advanced project. You will need the following skills to build your own Chameleon Free Range. (by the way, from now on I will usually refer to the Free Range as "FR")

- Basic Carpentry.

- Basic Electrical- (wiring your own receptacles and switches.)

- Intermediate Plumbing (I tapped off a nearby bathroom sink supply line for the misting system.)

- Intermediate "Handyman Skills,": You'll be modifying and installing a lot of wire shelving, routing plumbing through your attic, installing gutters inside a room and even drilling a hole through your house. At times, you'll have to modify off-the-shelf products and bend them to your will. Make sure you're up to the challenge before you get in over your head and have to hire a handyman and watch their eyes roll as you explain what you're trying to do!

Please note that I am writing this instructable long after we finished the Free Range, but I'll do my best to describe what we did and how we did it. My photography is extremely after-the-fact, but I'll do my best to show how everything came together.
 
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cpowell135 months ago
Awesome write up. I have always been curious on how to make him a better habitat while also keeping him safe and without remodeling a bedroom. I will be trying this in the next month but on a much smaller scale.By the way we have a three year old panther named Emilio, "And I was like Emilio!", anyways. Thanks again for the write up
crystaline12 months ago
Hi Gibbons Rock,
Great Instructable.
I run a reptile rescue, but have to say chameleons are my favorite.
I am actually looking to open a free range chameleon rescue and to buy some for myself.
Could I ask if you know of a reputable place to buy any.
I am looking to procur,Panthers ad Melleries,and Amobile.

Of course i realize that they all have slightly different needs.
Any input would be welcome from you.
Especially in the buying department.
you may be interested to here that our Recue Veiled would not eat and hadn't eaten for quite awhile.
This was remedied by buyinga bright yellow container for his food, hhe startyed eating straight away from it.
May have something to do with in the wild they eat honey Bees,mine also have pollen, as the veiled in the wild eat this too.
Out of interest do you over winter your chams that free range in the winter.
Or just leave them be.
Thank you.
Be'Be'
I am in the south East of England
Wow thats really cool! Can this setup work for a green iguana?
neutral-zap3 years ago
First off, kudos for making such a beautiful setup. I'll have to keep this in mind for when I eventually have the resources for keeping reptiles.

Secondly, you mentioned that your Nepenthes aren't pitchering? ( I don't know how much research you've done on Nepenthes, but since google tends to not yield very informative results in regards to Neps, I'll just give the maximum information.)

It looks like from the picture on the next page that the plant there is N. alata or an N. alata hybrid- most likely N. xVentrata (N. alata x N. ventricosa) simply as it's by far the most commonly sold. Nepenthes Ventrata is an incredibly adaptable and a robust grower, which is likely why it continues to grow well, albeit a lack of pitchers. It's a technically a highland cross, I believe, although I've seen many pictures of thriving specimens growing in lowland climates such as Florida. I'm assuming your temperature and watering conditions are more than stable enough for the plant with your current setup, which leaves nutrients and/or lighting as the probable cause of the lack of pitchers.

Nepenthes generally need much higher amounts of light than most houseplants, with strong lighting being especially important for good pitchering. (I grow mine right next to my Aloes in a south-facing window)
You might want to move your Neps closer to your lighting fixtures if possible, and this should help with the pitchering.

From your description, it sounds like soil quality might be the main factor preventing your Nepenthes from pitchering. Nepenthes, like most carnivorous plants, grow in low-nutrient conditions, which means that they are not very tolerant of nutrients in their soil. Most common household soil mixtures are loaded with fertilizers for good growth for normal houseplants. If you've repotted your Nepenthes without specifically using nutrient-free ingredients, this is likely what has caused the lack of pitchers. (The same goes for if you've fertilized the plant) If this is the case, you'll want to look into getting some nutrient-free mixes, and repotting. You might be able to find sphagnum moss or perlite without added fertilizer at your local store, although you'll want to avoid anything with miracle grow in it's name. (Personally, I just order the small amount of soil I need online) Also, If you're not doing so already, watering with distilled or reverse osmosis water should help too. (It also won't clog misting nozzles, as there's almost no dissolved solids in it whatsoever)

Here are some good resources in case you need them:

International Carnivorous Plant Society
http://carnivorousplants.org/
(The how to pages and the web ring have been especially useful for me)

Sarracenia Northwest
http://cobraplant.com/
(Nursery which has good plant guides and advice)

The Savage Garden
Peter D'amato
ISBN-10: 0898159156
ISBN-13: 978-0898159158

Growing Carnivorous Plants
Barry Rice
ISBN-10: 0881928070
ISBN-13: 978-0881928075

"Nepenthes University"
http://www.cpjungle.com/nepenthesuniversity.htm
(a website with a good range of information on Nepenthes)

I hope this helps and I wish you luck with your Nepenthes.

pcastle-13 years ago
Thank you for posting this. I have been looking to develop a misting system for my little greenhouse that I built myself! This is a very detailed explanation, I appreciate it.
Sesanne3 years ago
Thanks for a great Instructable and wonderful pics. I'm a great herp fan, but have the "opposite problem" - my husband really doesn't like lizards, snakes, etc. --so having them in the house doesn't work for us.

However, I do have seven horses, and I thought you would like to know what "horse nuts" usually do with that self-sticking tape, which I assume from your description, is one sold as "vet wrap". It's a self-stick bandage. If a horse injures its hoof (stone bruise) or leg (scrape or cut), the injury is cleaned, wrapped with protective gauze/bandage, and the whole thing is covered with vet wrap. Vet wrap stays in place, even when wet, so it's a key part of any horse person's first aid kit.

I'd love to see more photos of your chameleons -- and I look forward to updates!
AndyGadget4 years ago
That's a great environment for your chameleons.  We just bought a 10 week old veiled chameleon a week ago and he's in a 3' high enclosure at the moment, but I can see Cornelius will need more space in the not too distant future.  There's some great ideas in your Instructable, but I doubt we'll go quite as far as you have ;¬)
IMG_0184.jpg
This is simply AMAZING. Me and my boyfriend are huge reptile fans. I've always wanted a Chameleon, however I still live with my parents (during school season), and they are illegal in this state. :( However, we've come up with a solution of obtaining an exotic animal license, and hopefully soon we will be able to get it, and save up some money for some interesting reptiles. Chameleons especially. I've always wanted to do something like this, but I haven't got a clue how! This really helped out, and I'm definitely saving it for the future when I get a house. :]
chameleons rock a color changing pet
Very Nice! I am glad to see people caring about their pets. I was looking for iguana enclosures when i hit this page.. i got lots of inspiration, but i also visited http://greeniguanapets.com/tag/cage/ for more reptile specific details.
:)
GibbonsRock (author)  leandroflaherty5 years ago
Thanks! I think you'd get a kick out of our flagship herptile: Jake- my iguana turned 21 years old this year. I have had him almost since college (yikes- that really dates me, doesn't it?) He's still going strong, too. Jake has not lived in a cage for 18 of those 21 years. Nowadays he shares a bedroom with my wife's art studio. His area is a set of carpeted shelves mounted around a nice sunny window. He can go anywhere in the house he wants on his whim, but he spends most of his time on his shelves, where he's got food, water, basking heat, UV and his litter box. (which is a sweater box) At last measurement, Jake is 5'3" and weighs almost 20 pounds. Because of an iguana's bulk, the Chameleon free range would need to be beefed up considerably to handle an adult iguana, but it could certainly be done. Instead of live plants, consider wrapping 2x4s with rope or cheap carpet- that's how I made climbing ladders for Jake's area. If you wind up building your own free range, I hope you'll keep in touch and let me know how it goes!
grundisimo5 years ago
So altogether how many chamelions do you have and how much did they cost each i am planning to do this when move into a house.
cmw05 years ago
Found you on Chams E-zine and followed you over here. Pretty cool stuff. As an old married guy who loves reptiles and loves designing and building habitats the thing I'm most impressed with is...your wife's commitment!! This is the overlooked key to even dreaming about pulling something like this off! Well done all around. Beautiful set-up. I have owned many chameleons in my lifetime - and own several panthers now. Love the set-up process followed by long periods of observing the animals. However, as my wife has frequently reminded me...this is NOT a process enjoyed by everyone! Nice to read about your work. What country do you live in?
I am curious what a real estate person would say about this room. If you ever sold the house, would this dramatic modification to your room make the house unsellable to the 98% of the market who want a boring undecorated house they can project their own imaginations on? Or would you be able to find some crazy rich person who absolutely must have the house and is willing to pay an extra five thousand for an indoor tropical rainforest?
GibbonsRock (author)  NobodyInParticular5 years ago
He he he. You're right, of course. Sellers in this market are doing everything from redoing whole kitchens to throwing in free cars to get their house sold. We're not planning to sell anytime soon, but if push came to shove, we could revert the room back to a normal, serviceable bedroom in a couple weekends. We tear it all down twice a year for cleaning and the shelving unit construction makes it easy and quick.
angelkd5 years ago
Very, very cool! What lucky chameleons! And I thought my little 48 gallon mesh cage with 1 live plant, a few vines, and a fountain was a great habitat for my cham. How much did all this cost? Great job and very good instructible.
GibbonsRock (author)  angelkd5 years ago
Hi Angel! Thanks! I'd bet that after the smoke cleared, we probably spent 500-600 bucks on the project. The most expensive things, as I recall, were the shelving brackets and standards. The standards are something like 12 bucks each and the brackets 8 bucks. We recently added a backflush capability to the misting system so we can sanitize it on a regular basis, but I don't think it warrants an update. Cheers! Jim
dinesht325 years ago
nice finger...
GibbonsRock (author)  dinesht325 years ago
Thanks! I got nine more....
what a great instructable. this is a really neat thing to do for your pets, excellent execution
This is an amazing set-up. Those are some truly lucky reptiles!! What an awesome pet companion you are, building them such an extraordinary world in your home!
Dillis6 years ago
Very cool, i want one! Also, i've heard that when they climb some move forward and backwards to resemble a leaf to blend in better. Know if that's true? Oh, and i've never actually seen a chameleon change colour all that much, Can they turn distinct colors? such as bright red, blue, yellow, etc? Nice instructable!
GibbonsRock (author)  Dillis6 years ago
Hi Dillis, you're right- very often chameleons on the move with rock back and forth as they move, presumably to mimic swaying in the wind.

Meller's Chameleons don't turn any really crazy colors, but they do put on interesting patterns, usually striped, and usually in the green to yellow hues.
Other chameleons, especially panther chameleons, can turn bright red, orange and blue.

Those patterns are exactly how we tell them apart- they're kind of like fingerprints. There are also other cues, for example the biggest male is much bigger than the others, and another male lost a couple scales from his dorsal "dragon scales." Those two are dead giveaways. Finally, they have discernable personalities. The captive bred female is a rambunctious girl- she gets into a lot of mischief at feeding time. The four adults are named: Dume, (pronounced doo-may) Chaucer, Merlin and Guenevere.

Thanks! Jim

Dillis Dillis6 years ago
Oh yeah, and do you name them? i'd find it confusing what with their ability to change their color and all, is there another way to tell them apart?
Thoth6 years ago
Have you tried marine grade rope (either nylon or polypropylene) come in a variety of color and should be rot resistant (though the UV light may cause you to need to replace every few years). Also might try growing grapes, the vines grow quickly, they get thick enough to support a chams weight and the tendrils do a great job of anchoring the vines. Though they might require constant pruning and not sure about the warm humid conditions being good growth conditions. Not knowing the species of pitcher plants, I could only guess why they lose their pitchers. Could either be they are kept too moist (species dependant), soil has high nitrate content or soil pH is not acidic (though this would affect general plant health). Just something to consider. How do you feed them? Do you "hand" feed or release a whole lot of prey items into the room.
GibbonsRock (author)  Thoth6 years ago
Hi Thoth!

We haven't found any marine grade rope that looked jungle-y enough for the free range. We have a grape vine growing outside, but I haven't tried one in the free range- it would never get a chance to rest!

To be honest, I haven't put much effort into the pitcher plants but I'll take a couple measurements based on your ideas. I can never seem to find that ideal place in the free range where it gets just enough water.

Releasing bugs into the free range doesn't work- they scatter all over the house before the chameleons nail them. We do often hand feed the chammys- one side effect of free ranging the chameleons is they become extremely tame. They practically come when called! But most often we use feeding stations: If you look at that first picture of the free range, you can just see two feeding cups- they're the fire engine red splotches. They are just regular old Solo Party cups with a coat hanger bent into a hook so we can hang it in the free range. Punch some holes in the bottom of the cup so the crickets don't drown at the next misting.

Thanks for posting the neat ideas! Cheers, Jim
knitterr6 years ago
This is wonderful to see! I can see little lizard smiles of contentment! Exocet and Aar000ny3y, do this project (it'll be time-intensive, but so worth it)
We did this several years ago (w/o the leak sensors;get the leak sensors!) specifically for a rescued iguana until a good permanent owner was found, and the work totally worth it for tons of "herp happyness".
A room of their own is a nice little world for your chams and for you, too. I'll bet your wife knows of this rigorously inclusive, life-saving site by M. Kaplan: http://www.anapsid.org/mainlizards.html and http://www.anapsid.org/ and http://www.anapsid.org/pdf/icfs.pdf (the latter 2 are iguana;the first includes chams, thru the Lizards link) but it's all cross-linked.
I was looking for another instructable altogether, saw yours and it just made my day! But it is really all about the lizards...
thank you for posting your photos and info....this is a good place to begin: great habitat
GibbonsRock (author)  knitterr6 years ago
Thanks Knitterr! We are well versed in Melissa Kaplans various herp publications, but thanks for linking them here- it will be a great resource for readers. I've been rescuing reptiles from our local humane society for almost 20 years, and I still have an iguana that was pulled from a burning building in `92. He's turning 20 this year. I didn't build a planted free range for the iguana, but he has what I'd call an Iggy condo- also built on closet organizer framework, but it's a series of carpeted shelves and lights instead of a forest. That big iguana would destroy our chameleon habitat in no time flat. Thanks for visiting and adding to the resource! Cheers- Jim
LinuxH4x0r6 years ago
WOW! I've always liked large reptiles, and I love your instructable! Great Instructable, very detailed. +1 (sorry, thats all it lets me do)
GibbonsRock (author)  LinuxH4x0r6 years ago
Hey Linux, Gorillaz, Cheez and Jessy, Thanks for the one-ups! I'm glad you liked the free range- it's my first instructible! My wife is very active on chameleon-based forums, and she asked me to do a piece on the engineering and construction aspects of our free range...I thought: woo hoo! I can do an instructable! Cheers, Jim
Amazingly done Instructable!
This is really cool.
You put in A LOT of detail, amazing work, I hope to see more awesome stuff from you!
chuckr446 years ago
Neat. Did you remove the carpeting from the room? What happens to the water that falls on the floor and misses your shelving unit water catcher? Does it evaporate quickly?
GibbonsRock (author)  chuckr446 years ago
Hi Chuck! We learned the hard way with our first free range several years ago- water leaks are BAD NEWS. They don't evaporate quickly, especially when there's carpet involved. For this habitat, nope, we didn't remove the carpet. When everything's working correctly, no water ever touches the floor. In case something doesn't work correctly, there's a device installed in the misting system called a floodstop- it shuts off the water supply if any of the 12 sensors on the carpet detect moisture. They are very sensitive- all I have to do is lick my finger and touch a sensor and it triggers. Check out step # 10 for more details on the misting system and the floodstop.
cheezstake6 years ago
I've been wanting to do a similar project for our Budgies and African Grey, with a divider between them. I will definitely use some of this when I make that room! +100000!
This is very neat. You guys really put a lot of detail into the room. :D
GibbonsRock (author) 6 years ago
Hey, thanks for all the nice comments, gang! I've been working on this article since last November and it'd been "almost done" for far too long! LOL! I'm really happy you enjoyed it, and if/when any of you decide to tackle a similar project, I'll be happy to help you out. Cheers! -Jim
texabyte6 years ago
my beadie is happy w/ his 20 long but great Instructable +1
Shifrin6 years ago
This is pretty cool, In a couple for years when I can afford it I think I might give it a try, but I think I shoudln't try it in Chicago considering my plan is to use like a shed or something... Nice Instructable :-) -Alex
Lftndbt6 years ago
Very interesting, excellent contribution... Thanks for not posting as a brief Ible, it wouldn't have done that room justice.! Great job!
CarpetGnome6 years ago
Great room, awesome babies and fantastic instructable. Where is the +10 button? haha.
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