Bamboo is a type of woody grass that belongs to the family Poaceae. It is known for its tall, slender, and hollow stems, called culms, which grow in various sizes and colors. Bamboo is native mainly to Asia and is widely cultivated for its versatile uses. It has been used for centuries in construction, furniture making, paper production, and as a food source in many cultures. Bamboo is also known for its rapid growth, making it a sustainable and eco-friendly material. This is also why various species of bamboo were successfully introduced to tropical countries - even to those territories inhabited naturally by chameleons (Africa and Madagascar, etc.).

Africa, including Madagascar, is the native home of about 60 species of bamboo, while Asia has over 1200 species. The African bamboo species are often found in high altitudes, where they form a bamboo zone at certain altitudes (e.g., Nyiro Mts., Ruwenzori, Mt. Kenya, Kilimanjaro, etc.).


Bamboo seems to be a good candidate for plants in chameleon enclosures. We often see bamboo being used as branches. However, there are several constraints that make bamboo not suitable for chameleons, or at least, the various kinds of bamboo should be used with caution!


In naturalistic chameleon husbandry, we strive to imitate the natural conditions under which chameleons thrive in the wild. If there is a clear preference for a certain habitat or the omission of a particular element, we should take it into consideration. And here we are: chameleons tend not to live on bamboo in the wild, at least based on my observations during 35 years of travel in Africa, Madagascar, and other territories inhabited by chameleons. They might be found on bamboo only if it is in the original naturally inhabited area but has been modified by human planting.

I have only seen chameleons sitting on bamboo in three locations:

1. In Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, I observed a huge male of the Giant Chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti, on an ornamental bamboo bush originally from Asia.

2. Next to the entrance to the National Park Montaigne de Ambre, just outside of the park in the plantation zone, there was a female Calumma ambreense sitting at the edge of a bamboo plantation at a height of 5m.

3. In the W Usambaras, Tanzania, juveniles of Kinyongia matschiei were found in bamboo in a riverbed.

All three occasions had one thing in common: the bamboo was not indigenous, and the chameleons stayed there just because the place was the original one where they lived before due to other defining parameters, such as relevant altitude, the presence of a stream, and lack of choice.

On the contrary, in many places where bamboo is indigenous, I have never found chameleons in bamboo but rather next to it in large quantities, such as Trioceros affinis in Dorze, Ethiopia, Trioceros rudis in the Ruwenzori Mts, Uganda, Trioceros jacksonii on Mt. Kenya. Kenya, or Kinyongia oxyrhina, Uluguru Mts., Tanzania. In the realm of science, it is indeed challenging to work with evidence of absence. However, in these particular cases, the tendency of chameleons to inhabit areas other than bamboo was evident.

This preference is undoubtedly based on tangible reasons, which I will attempt to explain. Chameleons have their own valid reasons for not favoring bamboo...


The structure of bamboo forests, characterized by tall and slender culms, may not provide an ideal habitat for chameleons. These reptiles require different types of vegetation, such as trees and shrubs, to fully express their natural behaviors. The dense foliage of bamboo forests limits sunlight penetration and airflow, creating a considerably dark environment deeper within. This lack of suitable vegetation and limited lighting makes bamboo less favorable for chameleons.


Certain bamboo species, like Phyllostachys aurea or Golden Bamboo, possess sharp particles on their culm surfaces that can cause micro-injuries to the skin. These particles can resemble tiny splinters, and when handling or coming into contact with this type of bamboo, they can penetrate the skin, resulting in small puncture wounds or micro-injuries. Although these injuries may not be immediately noticeable, they can cause discomfort, irritation, and inflammation over time. In chameleons, these splinters can lead to abscesses and skin lesions, particularly on the plantar parts of their extremities, potentially causing sepsis and death. If these splinters enter the eyes, they can cause anything from irritation to loss of sight, which is obviously lethal for chameleons.


Certain bamboo species, such as the Giant Thorny Bamboo (Bambusa bambos), have nodes or prickles that can cause puncture wounds or skin irritation. Extra caution is necessary when handling these types of bamboo, as chameleons can suffer severe injuries.


Most bamboo species have very smooth and slippery stems, making it difficult for chameleons to safely grip onto them with their tiny feet. The size of the bamboo culms is also too large for chameleons to securely grasp. As a result, chameleons struggle to hold onto bamboo stems, increasing the risk of falls and unwanted injuries.


Certain bamboo species have trichomes, which are small hair-like structures found on the surface of plant leaves, stems, and other parts. These trichomes can vary in size, shape, and density depending on the species. Some trichomes contain oxalates, forming sharp microscopic crystals. These crystals and trichomes can irritate the skin and eyes, causing similar issues as described above.


While the majority of bamboo species have smooth leaf edges, some species do have serrated or slightly toothed leaf edges. The size and prominence of these serrations can vary depending on the species. However, it is important to note that the sharpness of bamboo leaves can cause mechanical harm to chameleons, such as cuts, scratches, and bruises.


Bamboo leaves are tougher and more difficult to tear compared to leaves of many other plants due to their structural composition and adaptations for durability. Bamboo leaves have a fibrous structure, with strong veins and densely packed fibers. These fibers provide strength and rigidity to the leaf, making it more resistant to tearing. Bamboo leaves also have a higher lignin content compared to many other plant leaves. Lignin is a complex organic polymer that provides structural support and rigidity to plant tissues. The presence of lignin makes bamboo leaves more rigid and less prone to tearing. By making the leaves harder to tear, bamboo plants can deter or slow down herbivorous insects or animals that may try to feed on them.

Several chameleon species are well known to munch on green leaves and swallow them. When they try to swallow a piece of bamboo leaf, they might not be able to bite off just a little bit, but instead they tear off a long stripe, which they then swallow. This can cause constipation, which is incurable and results in a painful death after several weeks. I had the unfortunate opportunity to perform a necropsy on one such specimen - an adult Yemen chameleon, Chamaeleo calyptratus.


Bamboo is generally not considered toxic; however, some species may contain considerable amounts of phenols. Phenols are chemical compounds with the formula C6H5OH, consisting of a phenyl group and a hydroxy group. Phenols can potentially be toxic to reptiles, particularly when they are exposed to high concentrations or prolonged exposure, causing adverse effects on the reptiles' respiratory system, skin, and overall health. They may cause irritation, respiratory distress, organ damage, or even death in severe cases. It is important to avoid any exposure of reptiles to phenols and to ensure proper ventilation to minimize exposure to harmful fumes.


Bamboo forests typically have fewer insect populations compared to other types of forests due to a few reasons:

1. Lack of diversity in plant species: Bamboo forests often consist of a single dominant plant species, which limits the diversity of plant life. Insects, especially herbivorous insects, rely on a variety of plant species for food and habitat. With limited plant diversity, the available resources for insects are reduced.

2. Chemical defenses: Bamboo plants have developed various chemical defenses to protect themselves from herbivorous insects. They contain compounds such as silica and phenols that make the leaves and culms unpalatable or toxic to many insects. These chemical defenses act as a deterrent, reducing the presence of insect herbivores in bamboo forests.

3. Dense foliage: Bamboo forests have dense foliage that can limit sunlight penetration and airflow. This dense canopy makes it less favorable for many insect species that require specific light and microclimate conditions to thrive.

4. Bamboo can be susceptible to mold or fungal growth, especially in humid environments. Exposure of chameleons to moldy bamboo can potentially lead to respiratory issues or allergic reactions. Good ventilation is therefore required.


Of course, not all of the mentioned dangers apply to all species of bamboo plants, especially the dead, dried, and treated bamboo sticks that are sold in certain stores. However, the list of constraints and risks of bamboo for the health of not only the chameleon but also the keeper is significant. Therefore, I suggest opting for much simpler, safer, and better alternatives, which are plentiful. Chameleons instinctively know why bamboo is not their preferred choice. My strong recommendation is to

avoid having bamboo in the vicinity of chameleons.

It's better to be safe than sorry.

Author: Petr Nečas