Actually, finding the right substrate is quite simple: Just imitate the natural habitat of the chameleon species you want to keep. For most species in captivity, a “living substrate” has been proving to work well for years. It’s humid soil of deciduous forests including all microorganisms. Of course you must not heat up this soil in the oven before giving it into the cage, because thus you would kill any bacterial flora, insects and protozoa. But those are indispensable for a natural substrate. The benefits of such a soil are quite obvious:
- The soil keeps humidity inside the cage perfectly.
- Plants can be planted directly in the soil.
- With a well rooted soil, you can use drippers and raining systems daily without need for another drainage system or water bowls to collect water.
- Females can easily lay their eggs in their familiar environment.
- Faeces and urate do not need to be cleaned up, because all the microorganisms do this for you.
- This subtrate is most close to the natural habitat.
- Once working for a while, the soil requires hardly maintenance and does not need to be changed for years. You only have to fill up foliage on a regular base.
In Germany, the danger to bring parasites into the cage with forest soil is absolutely neglibile (even ticks only very exceptionally infest chameleons). This might be else especially in warm countries with a lot of native reptiles – if in doubt about your situation, you can also use normal plant soil from a shop and add commercially available microorganisms such as springtails and woodlice. Many keepers are afraid of millipedes, snails and other forest inhabitants that might crawl through the living room when using living substrate. But in fact this does not happen, because these small creatures definitely prefer their humid, homelike habitat inside the soil instead of dry, draughty living room floors.
Cages without a drain in the bottom should get a drainage layer beneath the soil. Expanded clay spheres do well for this purpose. You can buy them in DIY shops and garden centers, packed in big sacs. On top of the expanded clay spheres layer, it is best to put a thin fleece (available in garden centers, too) to avoid mixing the drainage with the soil. Above that, you pile the forest soil from deciduous forests including all microorganisms. You can also mix this soil with plant soil from the garden center. The soil does not have to be unfertilized, it should only contain no small fertilizer balls or pieces – this could accidentally be shoot by your chameleon when eating. A layer of foliage on top finishes your cage substrate, makes it look very natural and is normally quickly exlpoited by springtails and other insects. A cage equipped with living soil should stay some weeks with all plants before the chameleon moves in. During this time, the plants can root in the soil and are then able too absorb much more water.
For keepers of female chameleons (also unpaired ones), the soil should be at least 20 cm high so the female can lay eggs inside. Female chameleons can produce and lay eggs even if never mated with a male. Having suitable eggy laying places available prevents your female from becoming egg bound. If necessary, the soil can be mixed with sand to get a more stabile ground for digging. Pure sand makes it easier for the keeper to dig for the eggs and clean them. Some chameleon species of Madagascar live above sand in wilderness, too. But please always be careful when using sand as substrate: Sand should not be swallowed accidentally with feeders or in case of lacking minerals by the chameleon. In the gut, sand can be the cause of heavy obstipations that are hard to treat.
Of course, natural substrate has one disadvantage: If plants root well inside, it will be more difficult for the keeper to dig for eggs a chameleon laid before. Many female chameleons indeed prefer exactly the well rooted, poorly accessible places right under plants to lay their eggs in a cage. But when breeding your chameleons regularly, you can also offer a cage with living substrate, but having all plants in flower pots.
Not suitable for a chameleon cage are the following materials:
- Paper towels or old newspapers: Excluding quarantine, a cage should always have a bottom substrate. Paper towels do not have any competing bacterial flora, so potencially harmful germs (e.g. from the chameleon’s faeces) can spread and multiply well on the ground. Faeces has to be removed on a daily base, the empty bottom does not keep the humidity and plants have to stay in flower pots. Additionally, female need opportunities to lay eggs and it is really not the best solution to put her into a bin and close the top when a female is searching for a suitable place for egg laying.
- Bark mulch, wood chips: Both tends to go mouldy in humid cages and does not keep humidity at all. Acidentally swallowed, it may lead to dangerous obstipations or even gut ruptures, because neither bark nor wood is digestible for a chameleon.
- Small animal litter: Beddings used for small pets such as guine pigs or mice do not keep any humidity inside a chameleon’s cage. Additionally, you cannot dig inside (very important for females), plants cannot root inside and faeces has no competing bacterial flora a explained with paper towels.
- Spaghnum moss: Although moss does not go mouldy and keeps humidity well, it is no solely solution as a cage substrate. At least you should have a layer of soil beneath. When having a thick layer of foliage, moss is not necessary additionally. Even better for a cage would be normal, natural moss that still grows.
- Coconut fibres: Accidentally swallowed, these fibres can harm the gut of a chameleon as happened in few cases. Moreover coconut fibres have the same problems as the other materials mentioned (go mouldy, pathogen bacterial flora, daily cleaning necessary).