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Jackson’s Chameleons: Killers of Hawaii Insects and Snails

October 28, 2009

On a recent trip to the ridgeline of Lualualei Valley we were surprised to see a Jackson’s Chameleon, Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus .  One of the guys I was with happened to be looking at an Ohia tree just off the trail (at about 2,400 ft above sea level) with a pair of binoculars and by chance he spotted a big female.  You can see from the pictures that it was nicely camouflaged.  I think the white patch on its side is a shedding piece of skin.  I thought Jackson’s were found only in the Ko’olaus, so like I said, we were surprised.  The next day in the office I called Army Environmental to tell them about it and they were very interested.  It seems they have recently been finding them on the ridge to west of the location of our sighting.  They have been collecting all the Jackson’s they find and analyzing their gut contents. Unfortunately they have been finding, among other things, native insects and native snails in their stomachs.  I gave them the coordinates and description of where out sighting occurred, and amzingly enough they went back the next day a found the darn thing.  It had evidently move to a nearby christmasberry tree.  They collected it and are going to look at its stomach contents.  I really hope the day never comes when I have to start killing these guys as part of an invasive species management project.  I grew up loving them and dreamed of owning one as a pet – they rate high on the cool lizard scale.  I’ve also always wanted a green iguana…maybe one day.

Anyway, here is some interesting information from Sean Mckeown’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians in the Hawaiian Islands (Diamond Head Publishing, Inc., 1996)

“Hawaiian Jackson’s Chameleons have all descended from several dozen specimens.  In 1972, a Kaneohe pet shop owner, Robin Ventura, received a Hawaii State Dept. of Agriculture permit to bring in Jackson’s Chameleons for sale.  They arrived thin and dehydrated, so he released the lizards into his backyard on Kane’ohe Bay Drive, figuring they could be retrieved later, as needed.  The chameleons increased in numbers and by the late 1970’s had spread to the nearby watershed area at the base of the Ko’olau mountains.  The country of Kenya stopped exporting this species in 1981.  So, virtually every Jackson’s chameleon of this subspecies in captivity on the US mainland is of Hawaiian origing or has Hawaiian roots.  In the islands, this lizard is one of the most popular animals with young people and is widely kept as a pet. ”

“The Jackson’s chameleon is now well established in Hawai’i.  While it is most common on Oahu in areas of mid-elevation in the Ko’olau Range between Kane’ohe and Kailua, it has a wide, disjunct distributon throughout Oahu and can even be found on the much drier leeward side of the island.  Additionally, it is now also well established at mid-elevation in several areas on the Kona side of the Big Island of Hawaii and on the island of Maui.  In upcountry Maui around Makawao, these lizards are most frequently encountered in secondary disturbed forest areas, in various types of orchards and on hedges in yards.  The first reports of this species on the islands of Kauai and Lanai were in 1995.  The yellow-crested Jackson’s chameleon is native to the slopes of Mt. Kenya in the country of Kenya in East Africa where it occurs at 6,000-8,000 ft. (1830-2440 m) elevation.  It is the largest of the three Jackson’s chameleon subspecies.”

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Gretchen permalink
    December 25, 2009 6:18 am

    Great information! thank you
    We have 2 as wonderful family pets in Kona, HI. We are moving to Oregon in April 2010 and I’m having a difficult time finding a way to get them there. United airlines will fly Chameleons out of Honolulu only onto the continental US, but I can not find a way to fly from the Big Island where we are. Any ideas will be greatly appreciated.

    • corycampora permalink
      December 29, 2009 1:03 am

      Sorry – I am not sure what the State quarantine laws currently are for moving Jackson’s between islands. I wouldn’t think it be a problem bringing them to Oahu since they are well established here. I ask some friends at the HDOA if they know what the rules are.

      • Gretchen permalink
        December 29, 2009 6:32 pm

        Thank you
        I have researched more and found out that you can NOT fly Chameleons inter-island since they are only established on Oahu and the Big Island. You can fly them to the mainland on United. What I’m trying to find out now is if I can fly them directly out of Kona, not Honolulu.

  2. Chuck Pikcunas permalink
    January 3, 2010 6:43 am


    If you are still unable to find a way off the island (as I fear will be the case), I may be able to help.
    I own a mixed mango & citrus orchard in Hawi along with a certified orchid nursery. I’m starting a naturalized orchid area and would also like to make it a Chameleon Rescue Center for people who move off island.

    As I’ve been reading the DLNR Rules, it appears very difficult, if not impossible, to transport these beautiful and peaceful animals legally and I hope my rescue efforts will help people place their pets in a safe and supportive environment.

    I come to Kona every week and my telephone number is in every e-mail I reply to. I hope you will consider this option.


  3. Chuck Pikcunas permalink
    January 3, 2010 6:48 am

    My e-mail is: I hope to hear from you or anyone on the Big Island who need to re-home their chameleon pets.

    • Gretchen permalink
      January 6, 2010 9:18 am

      Thank you so much. A Chameleon Rescue Center is a wonderful idea. Of coarse I want to do what is best for my Chameleon’s and will certainly keep your information. It looks like United with fly them, but I still have research to do.

      • Chuck Pikcunas permalink
        January 6, 2010 4:51 pm

        The problem seems to be the DLNR permit. There is a provision to export up to four Jackson Chameleons for personal use, but apparently all permit applications are being denied. Plus, you must apply for the permit in person (I’m told) at their Punchbowl Office in Honolulu. Further, inter-island transport is prohibited since they must be handled as carry-on luggage and I don’t know if United has flights from Kona directly to the mainland without a Honolulu stop-over. And finally, there is the “exotic pet” issue in whatever State you are moving to. Many ban importation of chameleons.

        I had the reverse problem when I moved here with a cat & dog, so I sympathize. But then you only had to deal with the HDOA not the DLNR too. And it still ended up costing almost $500 per animal to comply with all of their regulations.

        Have you given any thought to how you will raise them on the mainland? I had iguanas which were difficult enough, but all of the manuals make cage maintenance of montane chameleons sound like a really tough task. They need cool, humid & damp conditions with live food and are picky eaters when they aren’t happy.

        On the bright saide, I took in my first ten Jacksons yesterday from a family moving from Waimea back to Maui. They all looked healthy and disappeared into the garden almost immediately.

        Good luck and keep me posted on your progress. I’ll share your experience with anyone else who is thinking of attempting to do this too.

  4. August 2, 2011 5:50 pm

    I ran across a Jackson on Lanihuli a couple weeks back. I’d heard they were around but this was my first encounter with one in the wild. Just wondering if there’s been any additional information about their impact on the environment.

  5. Anon permalink
    January 25, 2012 5:28 am

    Add Hilo side to the big island.

    • Scott permalink
      June 7, 2013 11:18 am

      Add Volcano Village to list…big time! I see them every day in our yard moving freely in the trees and moving across the ground in broad daylight.

  6. Carmen permalink
    April 12, 2012 2:15 am

    We just saw one big male nearby Miloli’i. It was crossing the road between macadamian plantations. It was beautiful!

  7. Eddy Lederer permalink
    May 20, 2012 12:19 am

    What does it matter if they eat insects?

    • corycampora permalink
      May 21, 2012 9:17 am

      Mostly it matters if they are eating native insects. If they stayed in the urban and developed areas and ate roaches and grasshoppers it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but on Oahu they are getting up in the mountains and are negatively impacting native forests.

    • Chuck Pikcunas permalink
      October 10, 2012 8:43 am

      @Eddy Lederer –
      I tend to agree. Insects repopulate at such a rapid rate that in my untrained opinion Jacksons wonʻt be a threat to their survival as a species. This is the same facetious argument made about cocquis. Yes, they eat insects. But the real reason people hunt them down and kill them is that they are loud buggers. But even that is ineffective. Our local Coqui Coalition worked all Summer chasing them out of a ditch area. Now they are spread throughout North Kohala.
      Which brings me to the point that I think needs to be made. Nature will provide a balance between predator and prey and territory. When man interferes in any of those parameters, the problem just bursts out somewhere else.
      Are Jackson Chameleons native to Hawaii? NO! But then, neither is man. These volcanic rocks were ALL populated by invasive species finding homes here and adapting. To set an arbitrary date in history and claim every arrival after that is an invasive species is just nonsense. Jacksons are quiet, nonthreatening, and reproduce slowly. They are also very delicate and easily injured or killed. I donʻt think that we are faced with an over abundance of the chameleons or a lack of insects. Just let nature do its job.

    • Chris permalink
      May 11, 2016 4:32 pm

      Exactly This is basically my point. Wouldn’t people be killing the insects they eat anyway. Just another way humans be cruel to helpless animals. Humans eat cows. I am pretty sure a live bearing mammal is more important than insects.

  8. zack permalink
    September 17, 2012 8:40 pm

    ship them

  9. carol hardy permalink
    October 8, 2012 6:05 pm

    My husband & I have recently moved to the Kalapana area. We have always been interested in having a chameleon as an addition to our family, but have always put it off. Now that things have slowed down for us, and no children at home, we have seriously been considering this again. These are amazing creatures. While doing some research on this animal, I came across your site. Were you successful in starting your rescue? What type of enclosure do you recommend for when we leave the house? What have you determined to be the best food source for them? Do you suggest have a male and female pair? Please respond at your earliest convenience. Kindest regards, Pama

    • corycampora permalink
      October 9, 2012 11:04 pm

      I agree with you that they are amazing creatures, but I’m sorry to say I’m not very well acquainted with their care, so I don’t have any recommendations for you. I would just stress that whatever you do, make sure they are well contained and do not release them in your yard. They disappear faster than you would think into trees and are very hard to locate once you lose them. They may be great pets, but they are turning out to be bad for Hawaiian forests.

    • Chuck Pikcunas permalink
      October 10, 2012 8:27 am

      @Carol Hardy
      – Your letter sets forth all of the pit falls of trying to domesticate a Jackson. They cannot live indoors. All reptiles need natural sunlight to help them to absorb Vitamin D and calcium in their diet. Without it, its a long tortuous road to their bones actually softening and their death. Second, they donʻt interact with people well, so inquisitive children will terrorize them unintentionally. Your children are well behaved, I am sure, but they still will want to pet, hold and stroke the animal which it will perceive as a predator threat. Third, if you must cage one or two, make a large (4ʻ x 4ʻ by 4ʻ minimum) wooden framed wire enclosure, preferably with vinyl coated wire mesh. Place it out doors with leafy tree branches in it for the chameleons to crawl on and hide in. Since they are cold blooded, they thermo-regulate by moving up tree branches during the morning to get warm after the night and down into the shade to cool off as the sun rises higher. Leaving them in a naked cage will cause them to over heat and have a nervous break down.
      As for food, they eat insects as Corycampora keeps stressing. I would suggest putting rotting fruit in a bowl in the cage and allowing insects to come to them. Placing a low wattage electric bulb in the cage will attract bugs at night also. Otherwise, people have had limited success with meal worms and small crickets. The bigger problem is water. Jacksonʻs drink dew from leaves. They will actually dehydrate and die while staring at a bowl of water. You must routinely spray the cage and branches down with a fine misting hose nozzle to wash the animal and wet the leaves. This is a morning, noon and early evening chore.
      So, while fascinating creatures, I donʻt recommend them for captive culture. My preserve/rescue releases all healthy chameleons into our mango orchard where all of the conditions are right. We are 100% organic and they arenʻt exposed to pesticides or herbicides. Granted, we only catch sight of one or two every few weeks, but its best for the animals.
      If we can help you in any way, please donʻt hesitate to contact us.

      • David of Hawaii permalink
        September 6, 2015 10:31 pm

        I routinely check for Chinese beetles on our rose bushes at night. Tonight I came across two young Jackson Chameleons sound asleep in the roses. They had turned white in color and were totally out with legs rapped around the bush stem and eyes closed. They did not move even when shaken.

        Therefore, since they are not nocturnal, I do not think leaving a light on to attract night insects would be of any use. They certainly are of no use in keeping down the Chinese beetles, moths and other insects, some of which were on the same bush.

        We feed 7 feral cats who help reduce the local rat and mouse population as evidenced by uneaten presents they leave on our door step in return for delicious cat food.

        The cats have also killed at least a dozen Jackson chameleons in the last year or so, therefore I see this as a way of balance for their over propulation in our area. Unfortunately, if our dog finds a dead chameleon before I do, he likes to roll in it. The moe stinky the better.

  10. Brad A. permalink
    April 21, 2013 8:07 am

    We did a nature hike in Maui and came acrossed a full grown male. I have always enjoyed reptiles and currently have some as pets, although not chameleons. I would imagine you could ship them overnight via UPS or Fedex as long as they are packaged properly.

  11. Nina Valley permalink
    June 7, 2013 6:50 am

    I live on Maui Island at 4,000 ft elevation. Yesterday morning I filmed a pair mating, or trying to! I hear the really large ones can eat small birds.

  12. May 17, 2014 6:50 pm

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    skills as well as with the layout on your blog.

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  13. Tsunami Tropicals permalink
    May 18, 2014 2:01 pm

    Jacksons are carnivores. So of course they feed on insects, slugs and snails.
    And you can’t expect any animal to discriminate in the origin of its food source, whether domestic or imported.

    But, Jackson’s are not voracious feeders and have a minimal impact on their ecosystem. In Kohala, I welcome them as a natural predator for the fruit flies and spiders in my organic mango grove of three acres.

    I would much rather they be fed with the bugs damaging my crop than have to resort to toxic sprays. So if you have an unwanted Jackson, contact me.

    Charles R Pikcunas, Esq.
    Tsunami Tropicals, Ltd.
    Hawi, Big Island of Hawaii.

  14. Kathie Texeira permalink
    July 19, 2014 1:14 pm

    I’m located on the Big Island have been finding adult Jackson’s dead in my yard under my berry tree and one of my flowering trees. I enjoy them but have no idea why they are dying. I also discovered three very new born babies last night on one of the same trees. Any idea what may be killing them.

    • Tsunami Tropicals permalink
      October 5, 2014 7:33 pm

      There is no way to know without an autopsy. But chameleons die natural deaths, are subject to predation by hawks and mongoose and can get diseases.
      Another possibility is that the month long hot dry spell we just had reduced their water supply and they died of dehydration. Chameleons drink morning dew and dripping water from the trees they inhabit. If you think it’s been too dry too long, try gently spraying up into the trees they inhabit. Leaving some rotting fruit underneath the tree will attract fruit flies and other small insects that they feed on.
      Hope the two keiki are doing well.

  15. Chris permalink
    May 11, 2016 4:34 pm

    Why does it matter? Why? Chameleons non chemical insect killers and ur complaining about that/ shameful

  16. Iceman permalink
    April 20, 2022 10:43 am

    I have my own chameleon and reptile business in wemea. I catch all my reptiles from out garden and was wondering if u had tips on skink eggs and chameleon breeding we have 17 Jackson.

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