There are over 100,000 species of insects in Madagascar. All of which are wild bugs. Your chameleon’s natural diet is wild bugs and it’s not as taboo as you might think.
“So why does everyone tell me not to use wild caught insects?” Because of fear. Fear of parasites, fear or pesticides, and fear of the unknown. The truth of the matter is, parasites are host-specific. Parasites spread from human to human and also mammal to mammal, but not reptile to mammal. You have a higher risk of giving your chameleon a parasite by going and handling other reptiles at a pet store or reptile expo – inadvertently bringing those parasite eggs home. In most cases of chameleon parasites, they are spread because so many big breeders bring in wild caught chameleons for breeding purposes, and introduce them to their own captive specimens without proper quarantine. Thus, parasites spread from collection to collection. Wild bugs are not nearly as much of a concern.
In Madagascar, parasites have been evolving alongside chameleons for 100 million years – in the “New World” of North America, parasites have not been evolving to attack chameleons. The biggest risk is if you live somewhere with high reptile populations such as Anoles, Grass Lizards, Wall Lizards, or Skinks. If an insect eats the poop of these reptiles, it will ingest the eggs of its parasites – the parasites will only survive a short time in the insect, hoping that it will be eaten by another reptile so it can be introduced to a new reptilian host.
When you are armed with some basic biology know-how, you can be more selective of what wild bugs you feed your chameleon.
A few things you need to know about wild bugs:
- The majority of species of insects in Madagascar are beetles & moths. There are thousands. There are also over 100 species of cockroaches. 80 species of stick insects. Many species of strange praying mantises. There are locusts, grasshoppers, cicadas, and spiders. All these insect types are statistically most likely to make up the majority of a natural diet – simply because they make up the majority of insect biomass. Knowing this should warm you up to the idea of feeding your chameleon wild bugs.
- Harvest your insects from a pesticide-free zone. Pesticides are more of a risk than parasites – but your chameleon is more at risk of getting pesticides if you use tap water. Find a secluded area, or confirm with your City Hall that the area you intend to collect insects from is not sprayed. Flying insects may have traveled from a sprayed area to a non-sprayed area so the further out you can go, the better.
- IDENTIFY THE INSECT: Join a Facebook group for Insect Identification (this group has over 20,000 members and your post will get a response within minutes). Once you know what you are dealing with, find out if it’s toxic. If there is any reason to believe the insect is toxic, forget about it.
- PURGE THE WILD BUG: insects may have ingested something undesirable – like carrion or a cow pie, or your neighbor’s rat poison. To purge the stomach contents, simply keep the insect in a Kritter Keeper for 48 hours with some fruit & vegetables for gutloading. Some insects will only eat grass or nectar.
- PLAY IT SAFE: Some keepers use only wild caught insects, and some use none. Just because someone like me writes an article suggesting you can do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it if it makes you uncomfortable. It’s not all-or-nothing either, you can give a wild-caught insect as a treat once a week or once a month.
Safe Wild Bugs Treat List:
- Daddy Long Legs
- Crane Flies (also known as leather jackets, mosquito eaters..)
- Hornet and Bee Larvae
- June bugs & grubs
- Rolly Pollies (sow bugs, woodlice)
- Wild Moths (use safe identification guide)
- White cabbage butterflies & caterpillars
- Praying Mantis (of appropriate size, these are dangerous if too big!)
- Stick insects
- Garden Snails (terrestrial, not aquatic)
- Cockroaches (try buying captive bred ones from other reptile or tarantula keepers)
- Hornworms (WILD hornworms are toxic!!!)
- Properly identified moths
Aquatic insects such as snails are more likely to harbor parasites. Slugs tend to feed on bird poop, which can carry a variety parasites that could have originated from another reptile. If you are unsure of an insect, don’t use it. Some insects are toxic from the plants they eat –
Hornworms are toxic when they are wild caught, because they eat tomato leaves which are toxic; in captivity they are fed Hornworm Chow which is non-toxic. Some insects may be non-toxic, but have dangerous spikes, pincers or mandibles that can harm your chameleon’s delicate skin, mouth and eyes.
If you’re concerned your chameleon does have a parasite, get a fecal sample done by a vet or by a veterinary student at a University. You can also buy a microscope and learn how to do fecal samples yourself! There are many guides online. If parasites are identified, there are natural and pharmaceutical treatments you can use such as Reptaid, available on Amazon. or panacur (fenbendazol). Be sure to dose your chameleon by weight!
Some helpful websites: