There are few reptile genera that can boast more bizarre-looking species than the genus
Uroplatus (Flat-tailed geckos). The largest member, Uroplatus fimbiratus,
opens its mouth so wide during its threat display, it looks like it has a flip-top head,
invoking images of childhood pez dispensers. One of the smaller members, Uroplatus
phantasticus, has a morphology that so closely resembles a dead leaf, its tail even
has irregular patches missing from the margin to simulate decay. The entire genus is
endemic to Madagascar and contains a total of 9 species including Uroplatus fimbriatus,
U. phantasticus, U. ebenaui, U. lineatus, U. sikorae, U. henkeli U. alluaudi, U. guentheri
and the recently described U. malahelo. As this genus is generally found only in
primary, undisturbed Madagascar forests, it is quite possible that more species will be
discovered as more research efforts are directed at cataloguing Madagascar's native
reptiles. Unfortunately, these magnificent geckos, and many other Malagasy natives, are
plagued by extensive habitat disturbance as the primary forests are cut down to make way
for agriculture and livestock. It is estimated that if deforestation continues at its
present rate, only small patches of primary forest will remain in Madagascar by the year
2020 (Glaw and Vences, 1994). Many members of this genus have been reproduced in
captivity, but not in enough numbers to supply the demand of the pet trade, so many Uroplatus
species are still exported. With the strong threat of population decline through
habitat loss, herpetoculturists should be encouraged to set-up and maintain viable
colonies of this genus to relieve some of the collection pressure off of wild populations.
A Gallery of Bizarre Species
Uroplatus fimbiratus is the largest species in the genus, and one of the largest
geckos in the world, with a snout-to-vent length (SVL) of 140-190 mm (5.6-7.6 in). The
body, especially the head and the semi-prehensile tail, are extremely flattened. Huge,
yellow-brown or beige eyes with vertical pupils bulge from the head. The ground color is
usually a mottled brown or blackish brown with occasional irregular patches of yellow or
yellow-green. The patches of yellow interspersed with the mottled brown shades mimic a
lichenous tree truck almost exactly. Fimbriatus spends almost the entire day
sleeping, head down, on the trunks of trees. A fringed flap of skin that hangs off of the
bottom jaw helps the gecko to break up its body outline while in this position. The
primary defense of fimbiratus, and of all of the species in this genus, is
extremely cryptic camouflage. Uroplatus blend perfectly with the background and
move very little during the daytime, making it difficult for predators to notice them. Fimbiratus
, if disturbed, does have a rather impressive threat display. An agitated fimbiratus
will push itself up from its resting spot on all four limbs, and gape its prodigious mouth
widely to display its bright red tongue. This threat display is certainly effective
against the Malagasy people, as they regard this species with great trepidation and avoid
Uroplatus henkeli has a SVL of 120-160 mm (4.8-5.6 in) and is very similar to
fimbriatus. The sexes in this species have different coloration, the males being
yellowish-brown and the females more greyish. Henkeli have wide mottling, giving them in
some cases, a "calico" appearance. Both sexes have pinkish-brown or beige eyes
with red spots (Glaw and Vences, 1994). Both fimbriatus and henkeli are
capable of noticeable color changing (generally from light to dark or vice versa). When
threatened, henkeli will gape as fimbiratus does, but if grasped will also
let out a loud distress call.
Uroplatus phantasticus and U. ebenaui are very similar, both have a
morphology that resemble dead, decaying leaves. Both species have a ground color of brown,
grey, tan or orange and their skin has a pattern that closely imitates leaf veins. The
average SVL of each species is 57 mm (2.28 in) for phantasticus and 56-66 mm
(2.2-2.6 in) for ebenaui (Glaw and Vences, 1994). The tail of phantasticus is
longer and more elaborate in detail, often having areas from the margin missing that give
the tail the overall appearance of a decaying or insect eaten leaf Ebenaui has a
short, sometimes arrowhead-shaped tail. Both of these species have extremely cryptic
morphology and coloration, against the forest floor, they are virtually invisible. Both
species spend the day at the base of tree trunks, and subsequently lack the dermal flaps
on the body and tail that helps the larger species to break up their body outline. Ebenaui
and phantasticus do however, posses a spine-like dermal flap on each eye, behind
the head, down the spine, and on the limbs (Henkel and Schmidt, 1995).
Uroplatus sikorae is medium sized, with a SVL of 86-123 mm (3.4-4.9 ). This
species is similar to other members of the genes in color, it is bark colored and
patterned. Sikorae often has irregular patches of green that resemble the moss
found on the trunks of trees where its spends the majority of the day. Uroplatus
guntheri is smaller than sikorae, with a SVL of 72-79 mm (3-3.1 in), and is grey or
yellowish brown in color. This species also has a vertebral stripe running from the base
of the head to the tip of the tail. An interesting flight behavior has been noted in this
species. When threatened, guntheri will roll into a ball, drop to the ground, and
speed off into the underbrush. U. alluadi is very similar in appearance to
guntheri, but is reported to be rare (Glaw and Vences, 1994). The recently described U.
malahelo (Nussbaum and Raxworthey, 1994) is similar to both U. alluadi and U.
guntheri in size and coloration. U. lineatus is a beautiful and delicate gecko,
with striking pattern and coloration. It is the third largest in the genus. Lineatus has
very few dermal flaps, giving it a rather "smooth" appearance. The ground color
is yellowish-brown with many longitudinal stripes of varying brown and yellow shades.
There is a dermal spine above each eye that make this species appear as if it has
eyelashes. Of the 9 species, lineatus is the most divergent from the
"look" of the genus. This is attributed to the fact that lineatus is
reported to live in bamboo forests, a niche no other Uroplatus species share.
The most commonly kept and bred species of the genus are U. fimbriatus, U. henkeli,
U. phantasticus, U. ebenaui, and U. guntheri. Captive bred specimens of the
above species can be purchased from breeders, and are vastly superior to imported wild
animals in every respect. Imported animals are stressed from shipping and are invariably
loaded with parasites. Uroplatus are not currently protected by CITES or listed as
threatened, but if current deforestation trend continue, this genus will most likely be so
in the future.
Captive care is similar for the entire genus, with a few modifications for species size
or temperature preferences. All species come from areas with very high annual rainfall, so
the captive enclosure should have very high (75-100%) humidity most of the time.
Temperatures can range from 77-84 degrees F (25-29 degrees C) for U. fimbiratus, U.
henkeli and U. sikorae. U. phantasticus, U. ebenaui, and U. guntheri
prefer lower temperatures, with a range of 66-78 degrees F (19-26 degrees C). Enclosures
housing Uroplatus should include live plants and climbing branches. With species
that spend the majority of the day on tree trunks, it is useful to include vertical slabs
of cork bark. The geckos will often choose to sleep on these objects (although they blend
so well it can make them difficult to spot in the enclosure). The larger species, U.
fimbriatus and U. henkeli need a rather large enclosure, with minimum
dimensions of 2 x 4 x 3 ft (60 x 120 x 90 cm) for a pair. The smaller species may be kept
in enclosures with minimum dimensions of 2 x 3 x 2 ft (60 x 90 x 60 cm). All enclosures
should be cross-ventilated. Suitable substrates for Uroplatus housing are bark
chips (not cedar) and peat moss. A mixture of peat moss and bark is both aesthetically
pleasing and easy to spot clean. Dry substrates such as newspaper or wood shavings should
not be used to house Uroplatus because all of the species lay their eggs on the
floor of the enclosure. Full-specturm lighting that emits UVB should be included in the
enclosure. There is anecdotal evidence that irradiation with UVB improves the breeding
performance of Uroplatus, most notably fimbriatus, and it will benefit any
plants in the enclosure. A naturalistic photoperiod should be provided.
All species are insectivorous and readily accept domestic crickets, mealworms, roaches,
wax worms, moths, and grasshoppers. The larger species will accept baby domestic mice from
feeding tongs. Uroplatus are exclusively nocturnal, so it is recommended that prey
items be offered in the evening hours. A feeding dish may be used, but Uroplatus
feed with such gusto that they can damage their snouts on hard dishes. One author solved
this problem by using one pint, plastic deli cups with a thin sponge at the bottom cut to
fit (Burger, 1993). When leaf-tailed geckos spot a prey item, they focus on it, raise and
wave their tail, and then launch themselves towards the food in a cat-like leap. All prey
items should be coated with a high quality calcium supplement. To ensure that each
specimen is receiving enough calcium, some breeders give a calcium/ fruit baby food
mixture through a dropper by restraining the animal and placing drops on its snout. This
method works well, especially if food items are broadcast into the enclosure and have time
to remove some of their calcium coating.
Uroplatus breed from spring to summer in the wild, with eggs being deposited on
the forest floor in late summer (Russel, 1996). In captivity, clutch size ranges from 2 to
4 eggs, with several clutches during the year possible. The developing eggs can be viewed
through the skin of females when egg-laying is imminent. Some breeders house the sexes
separately, only introducing them for short periods for copulation. Other breeders house
pairs or trios together the entire year. Both methods have produced successful results.
All species will lay their eggs on, or close to, the floor of the enclosure. The eggs
should be artificially incubated at 78 degrees F (25.5 degrees C) in vermiculite (1:1
ratio vermiculite to water by weight). The incubation period varies by species from 60 to
90 days. Hatchlings should be housed in the same manner as the adults.
The bizarre and fascinating appearance of the genus Uroplatus makes these geckos
unique in any collection. The habitat that is necessary for the existence of these geckos
is rapidly disappearing. Captive breeding of this genus can help conservation efforts by
relieving some of the exportation pressure. Hopefully, conservation efforts to protect the
primary forests of Madagascar will be successful, so that the genus Uroplatus can
astonish and captivate generations of herpers to come.
Burger, R. M. 1993. "Leaftailed geckos: some notes on the maintenance and
reproduction of Uroplatus henkeli (Bohme & Ibish). Dactylus. 1(4):11-16.
Glaw, F and M. Vences. 1994. A Fieldguide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Madagascar.
2nd ed. Germany: Moos Druck, Leverkusen
Henkel, F. W. and W. Schmidt. 1995. Geckoes. Krieger Publishing Company. Malabar, Fl.
Nussbaum, R. A. and C. J. Raxworthy. 1994. Herpetologica. 50:319-325
Russell, M. 1996. "Natural history and captive care of leaf-tailed geckos with
emphasis on Uroplatus fimbiratus". Vivarium. 7(5):6-9.