Leopard Geckos: Starter Herps for the Beginning Hobbyist
One of the easiest starter herps for beginning hobbyist is the Leopard gecko. One of the most primitive lizards alive today, the leopard geckos hails from western India, south-eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. These lizards naturally inhabit deserts and arid grasslands of the region. These agile lizards often take shelter under rocks or in burrows that they dig or achieve second hand.
Geckos are usually a cream to yellow colored lizard with black spots and or stripes similar to the markings of a leopard. Leopard geckos may reach sizes of 10 inches in length counting the tail but around 8 inches is more common.
The tail has a built in defense mechanism and will easily break off when pressure is applied to it and will actually squirm for a short while after snapping. The snapping off of the tail is termed, “autotomy” and it is believed that it functions to distract possible predators giving the lizard a short time to escape. The break is designed to occur were the tail is pinched at the base and the blood vessels at this point are designed to seal off immediately after the break. Tails will grow back but are never quite equivalent to the original usually shorter, fatter and tend to be uneven in texture and color. The tail itself serves as an energy and possible water reservoir when times are lean.
A leopard gecko can live up to an average of 10 years but 20 years of age is not unheard of. Typically these small lizards are well mannered.
A ten gallon aquarium is an ideal home for a gecko. Choice of substrate may be controversial. Everything from newspaper to sand and Astroturf has been tried. The plastic in Astroturf may be eaten which is also a common complaint with corncob bedding or sand and may lead to impactions. Cedar mulch or shavings are too rough and the tree oil contained there in may be irritating. Calcium-carbonate coarse sands such Bone Aid™ by T-Rex® as are thought to be a superior substrate and may provide some calcium in the process. Although the leopard gecko does not climb, a tight fitting screen should top the cage just in case to prevent escapes.
Geckos should be housed at a general temperature of 75 to 85°F. Lighting should be provided, concentrating on a basking spot, and should be capable of reaching temperatures of 87 to 90°. This will effectively create a temperature gradient across the enclosure leaving one side warm and the other cooler.
Geckos are nocturnal (more active at night). The gecko’s skin is capable of absorbing 37 to 44% of the total UVB light that they are exposed to. The UVB penetration is 14 times the amount seen in a sun worshiping lizard such as the bearded dragon. Due to the sensitivity of the gecko to UVB light, they effectively hide from light necessary for the conversion of Vitamin D to its active Vitamin D3 form. In captivity, this species of reptile may actually benefit from low levels of UVB light necessary for Vitamin D3 production, but high levels of UVB exposure will be harmful. It is felt that in the gecko’s natural habitat, UVB light will actually penetrate their hiding places to such an extent that it is sufficient for their Vitamin D3 needs. Only lamps producing UVA, such as an incandescent light, should be used in a gecko enclosure and Vitamin D3 should be supplemented. Alternatively, extremely low levels of UVB light and short period exposure times can be used to manufacture the animals’ necessary Vitamin D3 requirements, but the process must be carefully regulated.
Hot rocks are not a good idea in most instances and may easily burn a pet.
The leopard gecko needs a dark and quiet place to call home. Without a hiding place a gecko will become stressed, constantly pace, become anorectic (won’t eat), rarely sleep, loose weight until death ensues. A hiding place is usually provided on the cooler side of the enclosure.
Although leopard geckos are desert animals their hiding areas will often have a higher humidity than their surrounding habitat. Misting with a spray bottle will often help provide this extra humidity which may come in handy especially during times of shedding.
More than one female gecko may be housed together but not more than one male should be housed together or they will fight possibly leading to injury in one or both males.
Plants may be used in terrariums with thick-leafed succulents usually being one of the best. Do not include cacti which may harm your lizard. Natural plants may be hard to care for while maintaining a clean and dry habitat and artificial plants are an easy alternative.
A leopard gecko drinks more like a dog and requires a shallow dish for drinking. Do not use a deep bowl in order to prevent possible drowning especially with younger lizards.
Geckos feed largely on insects and other bugs termed insectivorous. They will typically eat any small animal they can successfully swallow. The problem with most insects is that they are deficient in calcium. In fact, crickets sold in pet stores to feed lizards may not have much nutritional value at all. Typically crickets delivered to a pet store have not eaten in days. Providing these insects some extra nutrition will in turn provide your lizard added nutritional value. Crickets should be fed a fruit or vegetable which in turn will provide vitamins and rehydrate your bugs. Providing crickets with tropical fish flake food will also raise the protein content of your crickets. Once your crickets are in prime condition, they are still deficient in calcium and may be coated in calcium powder before feeding to your lizard.
An additional staple fed to geckos is the mealworm which is actually the larva of a small black beetle. Mealworms may be raised in a container of rolled dry oats and some slices of potato. Before feeding, the larva may be loaded nutritionally on fresh fruit and vegetables and coated with calcium powder similar to crickets. Other bugs commonly fed to geckos include king mealworms and waxworms. One of the best foods to provide a gecko especially one you want to get the lizard into breeding condition is pinkies which are hairless baby mice. They provide a wonderful nutritious package and a positive calcium ratio as compared to insects that are fed. Unfortunately, most pinkies must be fed live at least until the lizard learns to accept thawed previously frozen ones.
Rapidly growing young lizards should be fed on a daily basis, usually in the neighborhood of 4 to 5 small crickets. Large juveniles reaching 6 inches or more in size may be fed every other day while adults may be fed 2 to 3 times weekly. Especially when breeding, a weekly pinkie should be on the menu.
Coote, Jon. “The Big Chill.” Pet Business. November 2007. Pp. 81-82.
Hunziker, Ray. “The Guide to Owning a Leopard Gecko.” T.F.H. Publications. 2001. Pp. 1-24.
Rea, Sandra. “When’s Dinner? Choosing the right Reptile Dish Means Looking at Safety and Suitability.” Pet Product News International. January 2008. P. 109.
Boyd, Darren.“Herps for Beginners.” Pet Product News. December 2007. Pp. 73-74.
Walls, Jerry and Maleta. “The Guide to Owning Geckos.” T.F.H. Publications. 2001. Pp. 12-41.
“Leopard Gecko”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia on line. Pp. 1-6.