The sweet & sour story of the gut-loading


Despite the situation got much better within the last decade or so concerning availability of diverse feeders, in chameleon husbandry, a well known (and often ignored) paradox of the balance between the natural and captive food of chameleons still exists:

What they eat in the wild, we do not provide them (bees, wasps, flies, small grasshoppers etc.) in captivity.
What we provide them usually in captivity, they do not eat in the wild (crickets, roaches, larvae of beetles, catterpillars of moths).

One fact, is, that chameleons are very opportunistic feeders, which means that they would probably eat a cricket or worm but some of them they do not eat in the wild anyway. And, they do not eat what they do not get, so, for millions of years they get used to (and dependent from?) eat what they get...

Knowing, that we can not provide full variety spectrum food for the chameleons, we use two
compensation mechanisms to offer to the captive chameleons a food that is "sort of "equal" to natural nutrition requiremens:
1. Supplementation (adding carbonhydrate of calcium, polen, vitamin mixtures)
2. Gutloading (adding substances of animal and/or plant and/or fungal origin through filling the intestine of the feeder insects).

Gutloadnig is a smart way how to use the body of an insect to bring nutrients to the body of the chameleon.

So far so good. Or?
No one ever has made actually any analysis what is the nutritional value of chameleon food!
So we do not exactly what they really need! And, so, we start either to think or use our imagination and phantasy or create paradoxal phantasmagories that have no base in facts and science.

The private designers of gut loading recipes (I do not speak about established international companies) produce their formulas and either share them for free or make business of it producing gutloading mixtures. They are driven by two basic drivers:
1. They want the good/the best for the chameleons (mainly they use them themselves too and share their experience) and/or
2. They want to earn good money.

None of these approaches unfortunately gives us the guarantee,
- That their mixtures are correct (and there is lots of evidence, they are not)
- That their mixtures contain only beneficial things (as we do not know really what is beneficial, they can not prove their selection to be good)
- That their mixtures do not contain harmful substances (for sure they do)
- That their mixtures are natural and based either on research or at least on some logic (they are not).

Well, a strange situation, right?

All the designers and some of their alies will say: "I have good experience with this mixture for so and so long".
This is nice, but there is again NO evidence behind. No one does even simple experiments with a control group. No one does biochemistry analyses of their animals and no one does autopsies to deliver proofs. Everything is based on unstructured subjective assessment if any.

Folks, we are totally blindfolded!

Let me give you some examples.
1. Spirulina hystery. Spirulina is in. But, tell me how can insects, that are eaten by chameleons eat spirulina? It is an aquatic type of blue algae! At least I am confident, spirulina is NOT eaten by chameleon prey and if, then so marginally, that we can almost ignore it. It contains looots of nutrients, true. But are they really necessary for our animals? Can they digest them?
2. Vegies and nuts and fruits logic. The fresh and dry mixtures are presented mainly with these ingredients. But tell me: which feeder eats nuts and almonds? Which feeder eats blueberries and strawberries? none...
3. The most frequent feeders in the wild are bees, wasps, flies and small beetles for most of the species. What are these naturally gut-loaded with? With pollen, nectar from the flowers, that is it... So, where is squash and mint and berries and nuts? Even if we take orthopterans: well, they eat greens... mostly grass... where is the rest of the gutload mixtures?
4. If you get the receipts of the most popular mixtures, they are really full of substances that can not be digested by chameleons and that would never be eaten by any of the chameleon feeders. I really wonder where the recommendations of cooked qinoa, toasted almond flakes, dried papaya etc come from else, than from irrational imagination... And the worst issue is with the no-name companies that offer dry gutload based on bran, spirulina and some corn or fish flakes for color. This is pure business only. Even a not fair one. They just buy the stuff cheap, mix it and sell it expensive in smaller packages saying something about ballanced gutload... there is no racionale behind, they even can not lead any discussion even if asked and only play the easy money game with easy believing newbies... And do not care that feeding bran is harmful... Some very vocal facebook pseudoexperts in the UK and in the US parrot nonsenses and even have the courage to create their own creations. Total mess.

Chameleons are specialists in feeding on insects right? So, they have an ability to digest plant material?
NO, or very limited one.

So, where is the sense in pushing the insects full of plant matter that they can not digest?! Is it not lacking logic?

Or are we totally mistaken? And, Chameleons are actually omnivores and they digest these 2-5 percent of bodymass (gut content - part is actually partly or fully digested) as a regular part of their diet? So, are they omnivores in fact? Or are they a unique combination of Insectivore/vegetarian/coprophagous?!
Well, but what about 90% of their food being hymenopterans and dipterans that are gutloaded just with sugar water and pollen?

Or is the whole story of gutloading actually irrelevant or of minute importance and important is, to feed the feeders properly so that they become nutritionally valuable themselves? That seems to be close to true. But then gut-loading is really not as important...

The whole area is messy. And before science will provide evidence, we get stuck in the darkness of not-knowing.

I have written this most more to inspire you to think and do research rather then present our state of our knowledge, because this is still miserable. Anyway, some conclusions, we can make...

The relevant preliminary conclusions I allow myself to do is:
1. Care for quality food for your feeders in first line, even more than for gutloading
2. Do gutloading, and once you do, use simple things and avoid things that the feeders would never eat in the wild
3. Focus on pollen, as this is the only gutload that has been proven to be the daily gut-content of the feeders of chameleons. And, it is beneficial without any doubt. And, it is natural for millions of years...

And, do research and make your own opinion, do not take as oguaranteed what people want to tell you. Not always they are right. Ask questions and seek for good answers...

Author: Petr Nečas