Intro: A Free Range Habitat for Meller's and Other Large Chameleons
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.
Step 1: Do You Want to Keep a Chameleon? Can You Maintain the Commitment?
This is not a trivial project, just like keeping a pet is not a trivial decision.
I believe animals have rights and if you pledge to keep an animal as a pet, then that animal becomes completely dependent on you and the care you give it.
Chameleons are hard to keep. They are not for beginners. If you're new to keeping reptiles, start with a bearded dragon or a leopard gecko. PLEASE don't start with a chameleon or an iguana.
If you're a chameleon keeper or aspire to be one, you should think long and hard about if you know your lizard well enough to keep him in a free range. Every animal is different and every animal has a different personality. Small reptiles are difficult to manage in a large free range. Your Meller's chameleon might be the reincarnation of Ferdinand Magellan and constantly wanders out of your carefully constructed free range. Our four adults stay put for the most part, but we do have surprises from time to time. ("Hey guys! I found a way to get to the cricket bin! woo hoo!") Get to know your critters before you build.
You should also know as much as possible about the room you'll build the free range in. How is the airflow? What are the seasonal temperature differences? how about sun exposure? Can you adequately control the climate? Is it drafty? Where will you tap into a water supply. Where will you plumb the wastewater?
All that said, enjoy this little interactive photo of a couple of our chameleons and then.....we'll begin!
Step 2: Prepare the Room!
Before you do anything, decide what room you want to use for your FR. Building a Free Range is not an easily reversible decision, although we intentionally avoided drastic measures for some degree of reversability. If needed, we could convert our free range back into a serviceable bedroom in a couple weekends..
We chose our northeast-facing bedroom, right next to the master bedroom, but across the hall from the bathroom. This bedroom has the most continuous wall space, so we could make a HUGE and spacious free range- but it does go around an angle...complicating design and construction slightly. It receives the most sun and a lot of natural daylight. This is advantageous, because we have found that our chameleons seem to enjoy having a line of sight to a sunny outside. All that sunlight makes it the most naturally warm room in the house, and while it seems like an advantage for a room full of reptiles to be hot, that's not always the case: melleri hail from the mountains, where it's cooler. We will compensate with thermostats to shut off all heating devices when the mercury climbs, and we replaced the bedroom door with a simple screen door to keep air flowing (and the cat out.)
One problem is that this bedroom is across the hall from the bathroom. This will make the plumbing a little more challenging but still perfectly possible. More on that later.
Now that we've chosen a room, we need to plan out the free range. Ours is L-shaped running the length of two walls. We planned for the drainage to exit the room at the corner of the house, which matched up nicely with the room's closet. Doing this, we will be able to hide the drainage pipe next to the downspout on the outside of the house. The neighbors will never know!
Now we can really start! The first thing to do is prep the room- protecting the walls from the daily mistings. We painted the walls with a high-quality exterior grade paint. While painting, you have a great opportunity to go nuts with decorator techniques and make the walls match the jungle motif you're going for, but the most important thing is to protect the walls. These walls will be subjected to daily rain and round-the-clock high humidity, so choose a quality paint that will stand up to the abuse. If money is no barrier, then by all means tile the walls like a bathroom. If aesthetics are no barrier, you could also install exterior siding on the walls. Bleah.
I do not recommend protecting the walls with flexible plastic, like painter's cloth or pond liner or solid plastics. We tried this and discovered there's no easy way to fasten it to the wall without breaking the seal. (e.g. staples or nails) Eventually, moisture will get behind the plastic and the mold that will grow will cause you no end of trouble.
We went with exterior grade sea foam green paint base, and later during the construction we added a sponge-dabbed darker forest green for a nice jungle-like texture.
We had an ideal situation for the construction: We started building our free range the day after settling on our new house. We still had a month left on the lease of our current home, so the new house was empty and we had plenty of space to work in.
In these photos, the wall standards and gutters are already up. We did it backwards. You should do it forwards. Let's go install the gutters in the next step.
Step 3: First Thing's First: the Gutters.
Gutters? yep. You're going to want gutters. It works like this: The misting system comes on, it rains on your chameleons. The water falls down to the floor of the free range, where it is diverted into gutters and carried to one end of the room by good old Newtonian gravity. The gutters lead to some plumbing and we're going to plumb the water path right through an outside wall and out of your house...and outside of our house the chameleon sewage waters and feeds our vegetable garden. (and it works- we get tomatoes the size of grapefruit!)
Start with the gutters- they are the lowest part of the whole project. For ease of installation and peace of mind, we used modular vinyl gutter materials commonly available at the Big Box home improvement stores. The vinyl gutter parts snap together very solidly and have built-in rubber gaskets to make a leak proof system. Metal gutters are a pain to cut and seal properly.
All the guttering is mounted right on the wall with standard hardware just as one would attach it to the outside of a house and then sealed on with gaffing tape. I avoided caulking them for the sake of reversability.
What you'll need:
A stud finder.
A hammer & nails
A drill/screwgun & screws
Optional: a ping pong ball.
MATERIALS: (you're going to need to tailor this list for your own design!)
Enough Vinyl gutter to run the length of your free range.
two gutter connectors
two gutter endcaps.
One gutter downspout adapter.
If you're going around a corner like we did, you'll need a corner adapter.
one 4" 90 deg PVC pipe.
one 4" to 1.5" pipe adapter.
The gutters need to slope slightly to ensure drainage. Start at the end you want to water to drain to. This is where you'll install the downspout adapter. This end of the gutter should be just a hair higher than your electrical outlets. The other end of the gutter should be just high enough so that a ping pong ball will roll unhindered from one end to the other.
In these pictures, you'll notice that we hadn't done the decorative paint yet, but the seafoam green base protection coat has been applied. We also mounted the standards first. Trust me: mount the gutter first.
Step 4: Install the Standards for the Wire Shelving.
Wire shelving systems are also commonly called "closet organizers." There are several different brands sold at several different stores. It all works the same way: Heavy steel uprights called standards are bolted to the wall, and shelf brackets of various lengths fit and lock into the slots on the standards. They are very strong and highly adaptable, which is probably why they're so popular. People use these systems to organize their closets and storage rooms, some organize their garages and workshops with them, and others make simple bookshelves with them. A few weirdos turn them into reptile habitats. If you're one of those weirdos, make sure you get the heavy-duty style with two rows of slots.
The wall standards are the central framework of the free range, and they need to be mounted to studs. Your FR is going to support hundreds of pounds of plants, equipment and your precious chameleons, do you really want to trust all that to drywall? (especially drywall that will be sprayed with water every day) (You did protect your drywall by painting in step two, right? RIGHT?)
Use a stud finder or clever measuring (studs are usually 16" apart in American homes. Elsewhere, in metric-speaking areas, they are several dozen centipedes apart.) Locate the standards and mark the wall where you'll screw the standards in. We positioned our standards 32" apart, and it's working just fine. Use at least 3" screws. (about 7 centipedes)
As for the length of the standards, In our house, 6' standards worked perfectly, and could be mounted almost flush with the ceiling. If yours don't fit, cut off the TOPS of the standards with a hacksaw. Here's why:
TIP: The standards need to be perfectly level. Don't trust your ceiling to be perfectly level- our isn't and yours might not be either. Use a carpenter's level to check each standard against the one you just installed. This is especially critical when going around a corner.
Make sure your free range begins with a standard and ends with a standard. This way, the ends of the shelving units will be supported.
Note that the finishing paint still isn't done in this step. We originally weren't going to do a sponge print finish, but after the standards and the guttering, we changed our mind.
Step 5: Wiring Receptacles for the Lights and Thermostat.
OK, professional electricians might cringe at this step, but this is how I did it. I wanted this system to be removable, so I surface mounted all the components, otherwise I would have built it all into the walls and ceiling.
I wanted two receptacles in the ceiling over each section of the free range, and I wanted them on separate circuits: one receptacle for the UV fluorescent lights and the other for the heating spotlights. Again, I really didn't want to cut into the walls and ceiling to "professionally" install this strange wiring, so I surface-mounted it and ran it down to a plug. The whole apparatus is just a big complicated extension cord.
I added a light switch for each circuit and the heat lamp circuit has incorporated an off-the-shelf reptile appliance thermostat. This device normally regulates some sort of electric heater in a closed reptile cage, but it will work in the free range just fine by killing all the heat lamps if the temperature rises too high. All lights are on a timer, but the heat lamps are also on a thermostat. That way day and night are controlled. Chameleons need a dip in the temperature during the night, so this works out nice. You could easily adapt the system to provide around-the-clock heat with infrared and ceramic emitters if needed.
Important tip: You want a Thermostat, not a Rheostat. They look very similar, but their function is different. On a lighting fixture, and rheostat is just a dimmer. You want a themostat so if the room temperature soars too high in the summer, it'll turn off the heat lamps.
Materials for our main free range: (again, your list may differ.)
-3, two receptacle boxes
-4 15 amp outlets.
- two switches
- plenty of 15 amp electric cabling.
- Conduit! don't forget to get 90 degree elbows if you're going around a corner like we did.
- conduit hangers and nails or screws
A reptile heating appliance controlling thermostat.
Optional: 1 Ground Fault Interrupt Outlet. (GFCI)
A GFCI is a really good idea in this case...In our room the electric system had to be very close to the water system, and we all know how well water and electricity get along together. A GFCI, which are now mandatory in American bathrooms, is the special outlet that protects us when the toaster falls into the bathtub with us- it breaks the connection in a split second. (For our international readers, let me assure you that most Americans do not bathe while toasting bread. Ok, at least nobody I know.)
Since we're on the topic of danger, I don't have space here to teach readers about basic electrician skills, so I'll say this:
If you're not comfortable working with electricity, please find someone who is. This step isn't terribly difficult, but when you're working with electricity, a simple mistake can be deadly, dangerous, terribly damaging, or at least a little inconvenient. I thought I knew what I was doing and I still popped the breaker a few times and even blew up the outlet in the wall. (I used the opportunity to replace it with a GFCI.)
See the photo notes for details.
Step 6: Extend the Floor Shelf Brackets.
Shelf depth for Standard wire shelving systems seems to top out at two feet, and even those were hard to find- most of them are 18." Well, even two feet wasn't enough free range "floor space" for our needs, so we extended the 24" shelf brackets to 32" with wooden 1x2s. This still works out nicely because the actual shelves come in 12" and 16" depth. We can make the floor from two 16" deep shelved arranged edge to edge.
Here's how I extended the 24" brackets to 32": Wooden reinforcement.
I used a drill press to drill 2 holes through the 1x2 and the shelf bracket at the same time so they'd match up. Carriage bolts attached the two together. (the square part of the carriage bolt sinks into the wood)
Water resistance precautions: before assembling each extension bracket, paint the wood with the same exterior-grade paint you used on the walls. (you DID paint the walls, right? RIGHT?) I also covered the top of the bracket with tape. In the past, these brackets proved to be prone to rust on the inside, so I sealed them off with the same tape I sealed the gutters to the wall with. I almost filled them with expansion foam, but I already had the tape.
Step 7: Drainage Diverter
The challenge: divert the falling water into the gutter.
The idea: a sloped waterproof surface just under the free range floor. High in the front, low in the back. Water hits it, rolls downhill into the gutter. Gutter takes it outside to your garden, making your tomatoes freakishly large and juicy.
This would be a LOT easier with plastic, or better yet: corrugated roofing material. Thing is, that stuff is expensive! We calculated it would take about $200 to do our whole free range with corrugated roofing stuff. We looked a lot of options, but kept returning to a cheaper alternative: cover hardboard with a waterproof tarp and suspend it from the FR floor shelf brackets with carriage bolts and eyelets. That solution came to about $20. Much better.
You know how long your free range is, so you know how long the material needs to be, but do you know how wide? Invite Pythagoras over and revive some high school trig. The length of the bracket and the height of the bracket from the gutter are two legs of right triangle, and we need to know the hypotenuse, and the hypotenuse of this triangle is how wide you need to tell the guy at the lumberyard to cut your hardboard for you.
...Or you could just span a tape measure from the end of one bracket to about 1/3 of the way over the lip of the gutter.
Tip: Take your bracket to gutter height measurements at the leftmost bracket- that gutter is sloped, remember?
Or, if you're following our model exactly, the magic number is 33 inches.
Step 8: Construct the Lighting Cage
In our house, the chameleons don't have a cage, but the lights do. When keeping reptiles of any sort, you should put some sort of mechanism to keep the animals from burning themselves on lights. In the free range we cage the lights in, and the animals out.
Wire shelf comes in two varieties- narrow mesh and wide mesh. The chief difference (besides price) is the distance between the wires. For the lighting cage, you want the narrow mesh- it's just close enough to be a barrier to the chameleons. They can climb through the other variety.
Once the shelves are up, you want to construct a couple simple doors to prevent access through the front and sides. These are made from inexpensive pine lumber and some screen. Make a wooden rectangle the size of your lighting cage and attach it to the wire shelf with a couple screw eyelets that you pull open with some pliers.
2x 12" deep close-mesh wire shelves. If you can't cut them, have the store do it. Measure twice, cut once. Those suckers are expensive!
Several 1.5" x 1" x 8' lumber.
Fiberglass screen- buy a roll that's 24'x36" It'll come in handy when we add the plants.
Saw & Miter Box
Lay the narrow-meshed wire shelving on 24" brackets up high in the free range. You lay the lights right there on the shelf, and close in the space with the wooden screen door you made, and use opened eyelets hooked onto the edge of the wire shelf as hinges. Adult Meller's chameleons can't squeeze through the space in the wire shelves, and no amount of climbing and mischief will lead them to sit on a hot lamp.
To construct the front doors of the lighting cage, build appropriately dimensioned rectangles from the lumber you bought. Paint them and screen them. We attached ours to the shelving units with two screw-in eyelets opened up to form hooks. Screwing one in at each bottom corner of the door securely attaches it, but also operates as a hinge so you can open the door for light maintenance. We measured our rectangles 1/16â larger than needed so friction holds them against the ceiling when closed. Check out the photo notes for clarification.
Step 9: Plumb the Water Out of Your House.
Ok, you've got the gutters up, and you've built the water diverters. Now we'll install plumbing to catch the water from the gutters and send it outside.
At this point, we're going to start drilling holes through walls, and eventually a hole outside your house.
We've got to be clever here:
The pipe has to be large enough so the water can leave all winter long without freezing and causing a back up...
Well, you don't want SUCH a large hole that it's hard to keep the area warm in the winter. (At least here in Maryland)
In our first free range, I used 3/8" icemaker line to take the water outside. It froze solid, leading to water backups in the house and a big mess. This time I'm using 1" PVC pipe. It will go through a U trap so cold air can't get in.
The picture below shoes how nicely a 4" PVC elbow fits over a gutter downspout adapter. Two adapters are required to reduce the 4" to 1" and then a $.70 J-hook pipe mount holds it securely in place.
The left wall goes into the closet, which is where we'll divert the wastewater outside.
Words can't really express how unnerving it is to drill a 1" hole all the way outside your house. I measured this ten times and after what was probably the longest ten minutes of my life, I had a gaping hole just large enough to install a 1" PVC pipe and leave a gap to weatherseal the hell out of it. I think half of that wall is now filled with Great Stuff. (expandable wall insulation)
My house is wooden, so I really over-caulked the exterior breach for maximum protection.
This summer, I've got plans for a serious garden to grow in our side yard. The results from our last free range runoff irrigation were amazing.
Step 10: Misting System: Overview
This is an extremely Ying/Yang duality, in that the theory is simple as can be, yet execution can be extremely complicated.
This is because it's water. Water is one of the critical elements of all life, it boasts a unique set of chemical properties to do what it does, yet for all it's importance, it is extremely annoying when it gets somewhere you don't want it. Water damages most of the things that houses are typically made of, and here we are building a system to make it rain in your house.
Your chameleons need water, which is why you're building all of this. Mold also thrives on water, which is why you're trying to keep it from seeping into your carpet and walls. It's a careful balance to strike.
The mechanics of a reptile misting system are straightforward: there are essentially three parts:
1: A source of water.
2: A valve to control the water flow.
3: Misting nozzles.
1: Source of water. It can be a hand-carried pump sprayer, a reservoir with an electric pump or the plumbing in your house, but that water's gotta come from somewhere. I think tapping off your house plumbing is the best and most reliable source of water, assuming you pay your water bill on time. You'll never have to fill it up, and there are no pumps to run dry. There are no tanks to clean or store or take up space.
But then again.....
- City water has a bunch of chemicals in it- you need to do your own homework to make sure your water is SAFE for your reptiles. Some reptiles are sensitive to chlorinated and flouridated water and "hard" water will eventually calcify (read: clog) your misting nozzles, leading to annoying maintenance. On the other hand "soft" water may have too much sodium for your chammys.
- You'd better be sharp on your plumbing skills before screwing around with something like this. You're risking flooding your house. We've been there and done that, and we can tell you: it sucks. On two occasions with our first experimental design, we had so much water leak on the bedroom floor, through the floor and into our 1st floor light fixture, we could have raised goldfish in it. And that's just the water that the light fixture RETAINED. It sucked.
- Here's the breakdown of adapters I used: coming out of the top: A male/male Garden Hose adapter connects to a Garden Hose/1/2" NPTF adapter which is screwed to a 1/2" NPTF/press-fit 3/8" ice maker line adapter. The 3/8" ice maker line goes over the attic and into a bathroom faucet supply line. On the bottom side of the garden timer, it's the same, you can omit the male/male GH fitting. This is the SIMPLEST method I could figure it out.
- Garden timers are battery powered. We found the batteries last a very long time- over a year. Eventually they will die however, and there's a 50/50 chance that their last operation will close the valve.....or open it. Again, we've been there and done that. We've beefed up our drainage system so it can handle an all-day rain without backing up, but we don't dare go on vacation without changing the batteries.
- Misting nozzles are a pain in the neck with hard water. Every six months or so you should count on pulling all the nozzles and soaking them in vinegar overnight. When a nozzle clogs, sometimes it will shoot a stream of water at a very odd angle- straight at a wall, out into the hall, or, gulp, right into the middle of your bedroom floor.
- Actually, those nozzles burn a lot of water- in our house we have 12 nozzles, and at 5 waterings a day, it's like having a teenager who showers 4x per day! We're on city water and the cost adds up. To compensate, I added a pressure regulator to the line with drops our house pressure to 21psi- which cut the free range water consumption by more than half, yet the nozzles still mist nicely.
- If you use chlorinated city water for your misting system, the nozzles and tubes will likely remain sanitary and low-maintenance. Much or our tubing runs right under the UV lights and we've never had a speck of algae or anything. If you use untreated water or a storage tank and an electric pump, you're going to want to "blow the lines" with highly chlorinated water every six months to kill bacterial buildup. This is REALLY important with chameleons, which are highly susceptible to infection of all kinds.
- The floodstop is composed of three parts: a solenoid valve, a console, and a sensor. We installed the valve right at the sink supply line so the only unprotected point of failure is the supply line itself. The solenoid is powered by the console via a short wire...normally.
- The console is installed in the chameleon room. It houses the brain of the floodstop as well as all the controls. It has outputs for home automation system such as X10, so theoretically your home computer could call or email you in the event of a leak.
- The sensors are simple resistive circuit boards that can be expanded (greatly! I've got 12 hooked up to one console!) by wiring them in series. In addition to all the sensors on the bedroom floor, I insisted on having a sensor in the sink cabinet as well. I had to be a little creative with the wiring. I already separated the console and the solenoid by splicing in nearly 20 feet of wiring, but now I had to send and return the sensor signals too. 6 conductor Thermostat wire proved perfect for this. Label the conductors appropriately: Power +, Power -, Send +, Send -, Return +, Return -. It doesn't matter what colors you use, of course. Just that you line them up right.
- The Floodstop was the best $90 I spent on this project. The sensors can detect slight dampness in the carpet and immediately shut the valve. It takes a minute for the pressure in the whole system to decline, but serious damage will likely be avoided.
- Floodstops are available for most plumbing fittings in your home. They were designed for washing machines, ice makers, hot water heaters and sinks. We got the sink model- it screws right onto the supply line, and then a brass "T" screws onto it. This splits the water up to the sink and over to the free range and protects the whole thing.
A Garden Timer
A Floodstop model that matches your plumbing supply and as many water sensors as you like.
A Brass tee to split the water under the sink.
An plastic compression sleeve for polyethylene tubing. The brass sleeves will fail eventually!
Enough 3/8" polyethylene "ice maker" tubing to get from your plumbing to your garden timer.
About the same length of 6 or 8 conductor thermostat wire.
A 20' roll of 3/8" PVC tubing.
As many misting nozzles as you want for your free range (1 for every 2-3' of free range will work.)
Make sure you get the all the necessary parts for the nozzles. You'll need the female fittings and the barb fittings
An array of adapters to get ice maker line into and out of the garden timer (see photo notes)
Run the ice maker line and thermostat wire first. We had to cross the attic to get from the chameleon room to the bathroom, but it wasn't an ordeal because our attic is spacious and has floorboards installed. If your attic doesn't have a floor, it's important to know that you can only stand on the rafters- the drywall won't support a petite girl carrying a bunch of helium balloons. BE CAREFUL. Find the location of the wall leading down to the bathroom cabinet, and drill a hole. Thread the ice maker and thermostat wire together.
From under the bathroom cabinet, I drilled a 1.5" holesaw straight through the back, taking care not to nick existing plumbing. It took a little trial, error, and yelling some slightly regrettable things to my wifey to get the line run down the wall and through the hole, but we got it threaded through and that was that. I connected the plumbing and wired up the solenoid (Power + & -) as well as the sensor (send and receieve + & -)
Shut off the water to your house. Go get your wrench set, a bucket and a couple towels. It's go time. Lets do this thing.
WATER SUPPLY: Bathroom Faucet Supply Line.: Make sure you tap off the cold water. Under the sink of the bathroom turn the cold water off at the wall. Open the sink valve. Position the bucket and towels to catch the inevitable mess...and undo the compression fitting for the line up to the faucet. This is where you are installing the Floodstop solenoid, and if you bought the right one, it'll screw right on. Right after the floodstop, install your brass T. Reconnect the faucet supply line to one outlet of the T. The other outlet goes to your newly run ice maker line. USE THE PROPER COMPRESSION SLEEVE! This the voice of experience speaking here. In the last free range, we used the wrong sleeve- the one for metal tubing. It'll hold for awhile....but at 1 year and 6 months, that sucker popped right out and flooded the house.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
VALVE TO CONTROL WATER FLOW: Time to assemble all your adapters and timer in the chameleon room. Take your time...use teflon tape where you need it and work methodically. You don't want to break the timer, and you really really don't want this thing to leak. Cut your tubing at 90 deg. angles, and once everything's connected, use the tacks that Cable installers use for cable TV lines to fasten it to the wall. Be clever when fastening the timer to the wall.... we bent up a clothes hanger for a mount and you can't even see it in the picture.
MISTING NOZZLES: You know what? It sounds crazy, but I don't want you to install this permanently yet. Measure out how much tubing you'll need to get from the timer to the end of the free range, and then add five feet. Cut that length and drape it haphazardly across the lighting cage.....
...and add just one misting nozzle to the end. Use this to test your plumbing-fu, and make sure your drainage system is doing what it should. Troubleshoot your leaks and get the kinks unkinked. We can and will add more misters later when we're really happy with the location of all the plants....
...which is exactly what we're going to do next!
Step 11: Assemble the Whole Thing and Plant Some Plants!
Alrighty gang! Are you still with me? This is the fun part- assembling the whole thing. Unfortunately, I don't have any photography of this stage, so I'll make do with what I have.
The ceiling of the free range is made from 2 pieces of close-meshed 12" wire shelf laying on the 24" brackets. Put the light fixtures up there and plug them in. We put fluorescents up front and spotlights more toward the back. Test the lighting system and close off the doors.
The floor of the free range is made from 2 pieces of regular meshed 16" wire shelf, arranged long edge to long edge. It's best if the "lip" of the shelves faces upwards. Cover the entire free range floor with window screen. You really don't want curious chameleons getting through the floor and into the drainage system.
At this point you've got the skeleton of your free range finished.
It's time to go plant shopping! Our free range is a little over 5' tall, so that's the max height of the plants we can buy. As you plan out the actual jungle, you'll want to mix large trees with shorter shrubs as well as nice vine-y hanging baskets. Big meaty-trunked trees placed every two feet or so will provide the "framework" of your rainforest, and mid-sized shrubs fill in the holes. Up in the "canopy" of your rainforest you can drape vines- some real, some artificial, that will serve as the pathways around the habitat.
The big plants:
Ficus alli. This is the narrow-leafed ficus tree, and unlike the problematic benjamina, loves to be rained on. We've killed 5 large and expensive benjaminas with our free range. We switched to alli and never looked back.
Canella (cinnamon tree) This plant is large, robust and has a great jungle look. It's large branches provide great pathways for travelling chameleons.
Ming Aurelia. This is an investment level plant- but it's well worth it. Small Mings (12" tall or so) can be had for $20-30 at the big box nurseries, but they absolutely flourish in our chameleon cages and the free range. A 5' tall ming aurelia will easily set you back over 200 bucks; if you can afford that, go for it. Mings are really cool looking plants and the chameleons love their branchy builds. Alternatively, buy small ones for "ground cover" and they will grow. We've got one over 5' tall now and we potted it as a 12" sprout about three years ago.
Schefflera. Also called "umbrella plants" these guys are hit or miss in a free range. We've got a couple that are going well, but for each successful growth, we've killed one. Pot them in extremely well drained pots or their roots will rot out from under them. Some are bushy, some are treelike. Get a variety and build out your free range as you see fit.
Pothos. Let pothos grow across the floor of your jungle and it'll take over as much of your domestic rainforest as you allow it.
Use your imagination. Wifey and I are cephalopod (and chameleon) biologists, not botanists. If you've had success with other plants in your free range, tell us about it!
Pothos again- the runners pothos sends out will not adequately support your melleri, but if you drape the runners over the more robust chameleon highways I'm about to describe to you, it adds realistic cover for your arboreal dragons.
Nepenthes: Nepenthes are tropical pitcher plants- carnivorous vegetables! It's challenging to get specific identifications of nepenthes, but both lowland and highland pitchers seem to do well in the free range, but I can't get them to keep their pitchers. They grow and thrive, just pitcherless.
Highways, and other commuting options:
Itâ€™s a really good idea to create â€˜chameleon highwaysâ€™ throughout all levels of the free range; high and low, exposed and hidden. When housing more than one chameleon itâ€™s important to provide them with multiple ways to get from A to B. Building highways will also save your plants from a lot of wear-and-tear!
Branches from your local forest- Select robust dried branches that haven't rotted. sterilize them as best you can- spraying them with rubbing alcohol and blasting them with steam cleaning tools has worked well for us.
Dowels covered with horse bandages. Dowels are rods made of hardwood and widely available at many hardware stores and craft stores. Horse bandages are elastic wrappings that stick to themselves, and are generally available wherever horse supplies are sold. Horse nuts wrap horse legs with them, presumably for support. All I know is that horse bandages rock for wrapping dowels so they're more applicable for chameleons. Dowels are hard and smooth, and chammys have trouble gripping them. Wrapping the dowels with brown or green colored horse bandages makes the dowels slightly more natural looking and far more useful for the chameleons.
Commercially available artificial vines. These plast-O-rubber vines with metal insides have become much more convincing in the last few years. They blend in nicely with the jungle motif, and you can bend them to your liking. Once zip-tied into place, the large ones can support adult melleri with no problem.
Commercially available real vines. Real vines, whether dried grape vines or harvested responsibly from the tropics, are fantastic additions to your free range. They are strong, rot resistant, and look great in the free range. Too bad they're so expensive. Some tropical rainforest vines are available, but please purchase responsibly. Destroying a real rainforest to build your own is not an irony to be proud of.
Don't use rope. We used 1" thick ropes a few times, and although they look great and function even better, they rot like crazy. Fungus Farms!
A group of melleri in a free range can thrive, but we've found they will require a reliable means to hide from one another. We accomplish this with towels visual barriers in the free range. At the time of writing, we're developing a better solution than towels.
One option is to plant the hell out of your free range. Make it a REAL jungle!
Ok, that could probably work, but if you plan your jungle too thick, I guarantee you'll spend many hours looking for your chameleons. Good GRIEF they're good at that camouflage trick.
Just hang towels or sheets for now. Whatever, just give them somewhere to hide from one another.
Speaking of which....if you're now happy with everything, it's time to move your tenants in...
Step 12: Move the New Tenants In!
That's it gang!
It's been a long road transforming a bare bedroom into a slice of jungle, but you're finally there. Once the plumbing, drainage, lighting and heating systems are operating satisfactorily and you've got the plants where you like them you can splice and zip-tie the misting nozzles in wherever you like ...then it's time to move your chameleons in!
With 17' of free range, we've informally divided the space into 4 sections- one for each of our adult Meller's Chameleons.
At the time of writing, the chameleons have had five months to get the hang of their habitat and so far it's a qualified success. Our chameleons show few signs of stress, are well hydrated and incredibly tame for a genus known for introversion. Personally, I think Meller's Chameleons are the most social of the chameleon species; each individual truly has a unique personality. Every single trip to the Chameleon room results in some sort of ( and often humorous) new observation. Chameleons are just amazing creatures.
I hope you enjoyed reading our first instructable. We aim to author more instructables to show everyone other aspects of reptile husbandry that we might have insight on. We believe in giving our animals a great life. Wifey and I are dedicated to teaching the world about herp husbandry, wildlife conservation and eventually we hope to provide a home for displaced reptiles through www.GibbonsRock.org One day hope to expand our non-profit into a private zoo.
Thanks a million for reading. Questions and suggestions are highly encouraged.