The Leopard Gecko, a Herpetocultural Star
by Petra Spiess - Rocky Mountain Herpetoculture
One of the most successful species in the
history of herpetoculture is the leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius). The
leopard gecko is hardy, prolific, and comes in a wide variety of interesting color and
pattern morphs. Few species, with perhaps the exception of the corn snake (Elaphe
guttata guttata), are bred in such large numbers annually in the United States. Many
commercial breeders produce thousands of baby leopard geckos every year, making this
species one the most available, and fortunately suitable, species for the beginning and
advanced herpetoculturist alike.
A pair of adult leopard geckos can be comfortably housed in a
standard fifteen-gallon aquarium. Many breeders utilize a "harem" system. A
harem system is composed of one male and up to ten females. Often, leopard gecko harems
are set up in a sweater box sized rack system. A sweater box Rubbermaid container is
approximately one foot in width and two feet in length. Rack systems are custom made cages
that look a lot like a chest of drawers, the plastic containers pull out from the frame as
a drawer pulls out from a cabinet. Running along the back side of rack systems is usually
some type of heat tape, regulated by a thermostat to prevent a fire hazard. One male and
four females can be comfortable housed in this type of system. If you are planning on
having more than a few leopard gecko colonies, this is one of the most cost effective and
space saving ways to keep them. As leopard geckos are nocturnal, they require
several hiding spots. Hiding spots can be easily and cheaply constructed out of terracotta
plant saucers with an access hole knocked in the side, carboard boxes, used margerine
tubs, or you can purchase commerically sold plastic hiding spots.
Leopard geckos also require a humidity spot in the enclosure so that
they may properly shed their skin. Failure to provide such and area will often result in
the loss of digits, as the old skin clings to the animal and may cut off circulation to
these extremities. To make a humidity spot, obtain an enclosed Tupperware container that
will comfortable house all of the geckos in the enclosure at once (the shoebox size works
well for up to four adult geckos). Cut an access hole in the side of the container, and
fill the container half way with moist peat, sphagnum moss, or even paper towels. This
area must always be kept moist.
The substrate (what is on the bottom of the cage) can be several
materials. I personally use paper towels because they are cheap and easy to clean.
However, other keepers utilize newspaper, sand, lizard litter (a commercially sold
product), fine reptile bark, Astroturf, and peat moss. I personally do not like any loose
type of substrate, including sand, as I am concerned about excessive ingestion. Many
keepers have however, kept their animals successfully for long periods on these
substrates, while others have had problems, I prefer not to risk it. One note, some of the
commercially sold reptile substrates claim to be "completely digestible",this is
a misleading claim because most of these products contain plant by-products
(cellulose,lignin) that very few organisms can actually digest (termites are one that can
because they contain symbiotic bacteria that do it for them). Whenever purchasing reptile
products on the market, consider this: there is no regulation agency out there making sure
their claims are actually true so they can say anything they want without fear of
punishment-just take the claims with a grain of salt and do your research first.
Like most reptiles, leopard geckos generally require some
type of supplemental heating. One end of the enclosure should be heated to 86-88 degrees,
the other end can range from 70-80 degrees. In aquariums, one of the best ways to provide
this thermal gradient is to use and undertank heating pad. Several quality undertank
heating pads are on the market. Basically, they are similar to human heating pads but are
thin and plastic with one side being adhesive. The adhesive side attaches to the underside
of the outside of the aquarium on one end of the cage. I find these heating pads work well
because they do not give off light, which can disturb the geckos at night. Other heating
options include heat light, but they can be disturbing to the nocturnal behavior of
leopard geckos if left on at night (unless a blue or red bulb is used). Providing a
correct thermal gradient is essential when keeping leopard geckos, without it, they have
problems digesting food and regulating their immune systems.
Baby leopard geckos will take crickets that are slightly smaller
than their heads, and small mealworms. I feed about 6-8 prey items to my babies and
juveniles four to five times a week. The adults will eat adult sized crickets, large
mealworms, king mealworms, and occasional pinky mice. Adults receive about 10 food items
each four times a week, slightly more during the breeding season. It is important to
provide calcium supplementation to prevent nutritional disorders. One method is the
"shake and bake", the prey items and put into a plastic bag, some calcium powder
is dumped in, and the insects are coated until covered. This method works but is rather
labor intensive. Leopard geckos will also consume calcium powder straight from a dish,
regulating their own intake, which I find to be the more useful method.
No reptile likes to be excessively handled, but some species
tolerate it better than others. Leopard geckos are generally amenable to limited handling
(a few times a week) and rarely bite or evacuate their cloacal contents on their keepers
(which is a plus let me tell you-try tegus or most monitors some time). Some people claim
that their animals "like to be held", I consider this anthropomorphizing in that
I suppose some of these people believe their animals enjoy their company, most likely they
are enjoying the heat of your body, nothing else. Reptiles are not social animals and have
not evolved the need for contact and companionship we attribute to other animals,
specifically mammals (dogs and cats-cats questionable sometimes). Reptiles are not touched
by other living organisms except during sex or combat with conspecifics, or during an
encounter when they are the intended prey of some other animal. Consequently, reptiles
most likely view large mammals coming towards them and grasping them (us) as predators,
which as you can imagine, is probably stressful. Over time, some of the more intelligent
reptiles, or reptiles that have evolved without the presence of large, mammalian
predators, can become accustomed to limited handling, but I seriously doubt they ever like
or need it. This view is based on my graduate education in biological and
Leopard geckos are very easy to breed. Obviously the first important
factor is to have a male and female leopard gecko. Male leopard geckos are distinguished
from females by the presence of large, prefemoral pores right before the vent. While
females also have these pores, they are much less pronounced. Male leopard geckos also
have a distinguishable bulge just past the vent at the base of the tail where the
hemipenes are stored. Males will fight with other males, so it is best to have only one
male in a breeding situation. To stimulate breeding, leopard geckos should have a
4-6 week period of reduced temperatures. Two weeks prior to a reduction of temperature,
leopard geckos should not be fed in order to allow their digestive tracts to clear,
however, water should still be provided. The temperature should be slowly lowered over
several days to a low of 60-65 degrees. The geckos should be checked a few times a week
during this cool down period for any signs of illness. Any gecko exhibiting signs of
illness (puffed out throat pouch, gaping mouth etc..) should be immediately removed from
hibernation and warmed slowly over a few days to normal temperatures. If the gecko does
not improve over a few days of normal temperatures, it should be taken to a qualified herp
veterinarian. After the hibernation period, the geckos should be warmed up over a few days
to normal maintenance temperatures and food offered. It is important that the female
geckos are fed heavily and of good body weight during this period. A few weeks after they
have been warmed up, the geckos will begin breeding.
It is easy to ascertain if a female leopard gecko is carrying eggs.
When a gravid female leopard gecko is turned upside down, the developing eggs are visible
through the skin just above the vent on both sides of the body. When developing eggs are
visible, it is important to include an egg-laying chamber in the enclosure. An egg-laying
chamber can be constructed out of a plastic Tupperware container with an access hole cut
in the side. The egg-laying chamber should be filled with a moist, loose substrate such as
peat moss, vermiculite, or potting soil. The humidity site can often double as the
egg-laying site. Female leopard geckos will bury clutches of two eggs each in the
substrate at two to three week intervals. If the egg-laying chamber is on top of the heat
source, it is important to check the egg-laying chamber often so the eggs do not dry out.
After the eggs have been laid, they should be removed and artificially incubated. Leopard
geckos are temperature sex dependent, temperatures between 80-86 degrees produces mostly
females, temperatures above 88 degrees produces mostly males. At a temperature of 85-88
degrees F, a mix of sexes is produced. Baby leopard geckos can be set up and maintained in
a similar manner to the adults, in a smaller cage of course
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