Parson's Chameleons

Calumma parsonii

by Michael Fry

Copyrightę 2000 All Rights Reserved

Adult female C. parsonii parsonii. Despite their large size, these animals are very delicate in captivity.

Parson's in Captivity

Because of their striking appearance, Parson's Chameleons were once imported to the United States of America in fairly large numbers. Sadly, because of their delicate nature, susceptability to stress, and lack of care on the part of the importers, nearly all of these animals died shorterly after arrival in the USA.

Between January of 1988 and June of 1994, over 4000 C. parsonii were reported to have been imported to the USA. Most people agree that the actual number of animals entering the country was significantly higher. Not accounted for are animals smuggled on the black market or which were not accounted for in shipping documents.

Some people estimate that the total number of Parson's Chameleons imported for the pet trade in the USA could exceed 10,000 animals. Actual numbers are impossible to calculate, since records prior to 1988 are not available.

Of the estimated 10,000 animals imported, all but a few have died. A recent project by CIN to document all known captive Parson's turned up fewer than 200 imported animals. This suggests a deplorable survival rate for an animal whose life expectancy is estimated to be greater than 20 years.

Of the surviving animals, hardly any have bred. Some estimates say that as few as 40 captive bred offspring from 3 clutches of eggs have been produced. Others say the number is higher, approaching 200 captive bred offspring from as many as 9 or 10 clutches of eggs. However, these offspring have not been confirmed to exist or to have come from captive breeding efforts. At best, it was necessary to import 1,000 animals to produce one clutch of eggs.

None of the captive bred animals have yet produced any offspring.

In 1994 an import ban went into effect, protecting all but four of the chameleon species native to Madagascar. C. parsonii have been protected from importation since that time.

Juvenile C. parsonii parsonii basking in the sun.


One of the largest Madagascan chameleons, adult male C. parsonii parsonii have been recorded at lengths of nearly 30 inches (including tail). Add to ther length, their massive, tank-like build, and they are likely the heaviest and possibly the longest chameleon in the world. F. oustaleti is another possible contender with regard to length.

Their size has added to their popularity. But their brilliant colors are probably what attract most people to Parson's Chameleons.

Females are generally a brilliant green color with curved, diagonal stripes. Some animals poses a central lateral dot. In other animals, the dot is faint or missing altogether.

The coloration of the males ranges from blue to green and turquoise-blue with bright yellow or orange eye turrets.

There is one smaller subspecies, C. parsonii cristifer. In addition to being smaller (males are less than 20 inches in total length), both sexes have a dorsal crest over the first two thirds of their body.

Males of both subspecies have two rosteral appendages which might be used during their largly ritualistic territorial battles. Both males and females have a homogeneous and smooth squamation (arangement of scales).

C. parsonii was first described in 1768 by James Parsons. It was not identified and named until 1824.

A long-lived species, C. parsonii may not reach sexual maturity until they are 3 - 5 years of age and may live to be more then 20 years old.

Juvenile male C. parsonii parsonii. Coloring may be an indicator of gender by the age of about 4 months.


C. parsonii are native to the primary rainforests of the elevated eastern area of Madagascar, up to an altitude of about 7,000 feet. However, their range extends all the way down to the eastern coast, where trade winds bring moisture ladden air to the land.

The primary factor common throughout C. parsonii habitat is water. Some areas receive as much as 150 inches of rain per year. Temperatures are generally coolish with highs in the mid to upper 70's (degrees F) and lows down into the 40's (degrees F). In some areas of their habitat, Parson's chameleons are exposed to temperatures into the mid and upper 80's.

As human activity increased in Madagascar, there is evidence that C. parsonii are adapting to take advantage of coffee plantations, feeding on the many insects that are attracted to the blossoms of the coffee trees.


Parson's are very stationary animals. Adults may go for long periods without moving except to eat, drink, mate or deficate. They also do not spend much time basking, like many other true chameleons. They will, however, sit in the sun for short periods and slightly flatten one side of their body toward the sun. These sunning sessions are rarely more than 10 - 15 minutes long and usually take place early in the morning as soon as sun is available.


Because of their size, anyone considering keeping Parson's chameleons will need to get creative in supplying large food sources. Roaches and silkworms are ideal. In the wild, it has been suggested that C. parsonii eat birds and small mammals. So these should be considered potential food sources in captivity as well.

Many captive animals are reluctant to feed from food dishes. In these cases, hand-feeding often becomes the primary feeding method.

A Female c. parsonii cristifer is much smaller than the female of the nominant form.


One of the biggest challenges in keeping Parson's in captivity is providing them with the water they need.

Cages with high humidity are prone to mold and bacteria growth, which can cause problems for chameleons. The goal is to reach a balance with the moisture so that the animals remain well hydrated but mold and bacteria are not growing. This is easiest to accomplish in a large area and is one of the reasons these slow moving, sedentary animals require large cages. Small cages with high humidity can lead to many problems.

Ideal "cages" for Parson's Chameleons are greenhouses with large trees and overhead, spray watering systems. If this sort of system is not available, ensure that a drip system is available providing water throughout the day. Additional humidity can be added by misting branches and using humidifiers.