Leopard Gecko Lizards
20 Years of Caring for the Same Group of Leopard Geckos
The leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius) is a species of terrestrial lizard that originates from arid regions in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. In addition to E. macularius, the four other recognized species in the genus are E. angramainyu, E. fuscus, E. hardwickii and E. turcmenicus. Of the five species, the familiar E. macularius is the only one established in the trade.
Having long been a mainstay in the herpetoculture trade, the common leopard gecko has been bred in the United States as far back as the early 1970s. It was not until the late ‘80s, however, that breeding began on a large scale, with many new color morphs appearing in the ‘90s. In fact, it could be argued that along with bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps), ball pythons (Python regius), and corn snakes (Pantherophis g. guttatus), the popularity of leopard geckos has been, in a large part, responsible for the development of the herpetoculture industry today.
Despite the plethora of information about E. macularius, or perhaps to a point because of it, much debate has arisen in recent years over certain aspects of the care and husbandry of this fascinating lizard. I still maintain the same group of leopard geckos that I acquired between 1988 and 1990, and the purpose of this article will be to provide a general overview of E. macularius care by sharing the techniques that have worked well for me for so long.
Leopard Gecko Morphs
In the herpetocultural world, leopard geckos are perhaps one of the most recognizable of all lizards. Growing to an average adult length of 10 inches, E. macularius, along with other eublepharids, is completely terrestrial and lacks the ability to climb smooth surfaces like other gecko species. Sometimes referred to as eyelash geckos (but not to be confused with Rhacodactylus ciliates), eublepharid geckos, in contrast to other gecko species, have moveable eyelids. The base coloration of a wild type leopard gecko is yellow, with varying degrees of black spots, hence the common name. The ventral surface is a cream color. Generations of dedicated breeding has produced a multitude of color forms. Volumes have been written covering just the various morphs of E. macularius. I have only kept my original group and some of the resulting offspring, traditionally called wild type and more recently termed “ancestral line.” In addition to different color morphs (such as those on the cover of this issue), herpetoculturists have also produced larger E. macularius, with some reaching more than a foot in length.
Buying a Leopard Gecko
Currently, there are numerous sources to acquire leopard geckos. Pet stores, herp shows and online are the three major outlets. Pet stores give you the chance to inspect the animal before purchase and most reliable shops generally offer some sort of replacement guarantee. Herp shows are a wonderful way to meet many of the breeders directly, ask questions and inspect individual animals prior to purchase. Even though there seems to be more herp shows today than ever before, a weekend event may not always be easily accessible, depending on your geographic location. Shopping for herps online is also very popular. Most of the top breeders have websites and are very willing to answer questions by email or phone as well as work with the customer should the rare shipping loss occur. Some leopard geckos can even be found either for free or for a small adoption fee through various rescues, as well. Regardless of the source of acquisition, only healthy animals should be obtained. The fact that all E. macularius available in the trade are of captive-bred origin does not guarantee a healthy animal. Avoid thin, lethargic individuals. In general, adults are more settled in behavior, where as hatchlings and juveniles are wary and skittish. Healthy adults should have significant fat deposits in the tail.
Handling a Leopard Gecko
I am a firm believer that the vast majority of herps do not enjoy being handled for extended lengths of time and some just tolerate it more than others. With that being said, adult leopard geckos have a well-deserved reputation for being one of the easiest lizards to handle. Hatchlings and young specimens are more prone to stress, and they should not be handled unless necessary. Even adults’ personalities can vary, but in general most will tame down with periods of gentle handling. Hands should always be washed thoroughly before and after handling any herp.
Leopard Gecko Health
Given that those available in the pet hobby are completely captive bred, it would be easy to assume that any E.macularius will be disease and parasite free. While it is true that captive-bred animals are, generally, overall problem free and easier to maintain, especially when compared to wild-caught counterparts, it does not necessarily hold true for animals that have been bred as much as leopard geckos. Again, you should always select the healthiest-appearing individuals from the start. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the various disorders that can affect leopard geckos, but if an animal goes off feed, begins to visibly lose weight, has diarrhea, acts lethargic or exhibits any other symptoms of ill health, it should be taken to a qualified reptile veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment. New additions should always be quarantined in separate enclosures for at least 30 days prior to introduction to an established colony.
Good husbandry will usually prevent most problems. Leopard geckos will even help their keepers with this by choosing one area of the vivarium in which to defecate. Philippe de Vosjoli coined the term “defactoria” years ago to name this area, and it makes cleanup very easy. I scoop out feces from the defactoria twice a week, and also clean the inside glass with a damp paper towel. I change the entire substrate and wash the enclosure approximately once a year.
Enclosure for a Leopard Gecko
Leopard geckos can be kept in anything from plastic tubs to fish tanks to specifically designed reptile vivariums, as long as their basic requirements are met. Floor space is important. Leopard geckos are terrestrial by nature and do not require unnecessary height. I have read many times over the years that a single adult E. macularius can be comfortably housed in a standard 10-gallon aquarium (measuring 20 inches long, 10 inches wide and 12 inches tall). While it is true that an individual animal could probably survive in such a small enclosure, that does not mean that it will thrive. Small enclosures are wonderful for raising hatchlings and juveniles, but adults should be given as much space as possible. A standard 20-gallon long tank (measuring 30 inches long, 12 inches wide and 12 inches tall) would be the smallest recommended size for a pair, with more space being required for additional females.
I favor enclosures with a footprint of 36 inches by 18 inches, and I kept my original group of 1.3 in a vivarium of this size for years. My original group, along with three adult female offspring, are currently housed in a 150-gallon enclosure measuring 72 inches long, 18 inches wide and 29 inches tall.
Regardless of the type and size of enclosure, there are several key elements that must be included. The vivarium will require some form of substrate, at least one dry shelter, a humidified shelter, a water container and a heat source. Being nocturnal by nature, leopard geckos do not bask in the sunlight, so lighting is generally an aesthetic option unless live plants are incorporated. With this being said, I have always used fluorescent daylight spectrum bulbs set on a timer to provide a somewhat natural day-and-night cycle. That said, don’t be surprised when individuals with more outgoing personalities come out to beg for food no matter the time of day.
The subject of substrate remains hotly debated on internet forums. Many keepers prefer a naturalistic appearance and use either sand or a sand and soil mixture. Other keepers argue that sand can be accidentally ingested and places the animal at risk for impaction and even death, preferring instead simpler substrates, such as paper towel, newspaper, stone tile or carpeting specifically designed for reptile enclosures. Large-scale breeders certainly opt for simple substrates, as this facilitates ease of cleaning.
I have always kept my adult leopard geckos on sand, usually commercial-grade play sand, since their initial acquisition in 1988. One important note that must be mentioned, however, is that each gecko is generally forcep-fed, and rarely are insects allowed to run free in their enclosure. Hatchlings and juveniles have always been raised in separate containers using paper towel or newspaper as a substrate, again for ease of maintenance.
In addition to a substrate, leopard geckos require several forms of shelter. A humidified shelter about 6 inches in diameter is required to assist in shedding, which all reptiles do as they grow. There are several methods to accomplish this. With more utilitarian setups, a shallow dish containing moist vermiculite or perlite-free potting soil can be covered with the desired type of container to create a moist microhabitat. The substrate should be checked regularly in order to prevent it from drying out. If a natural substrate is used, then a humidified shelter can be easily constructed by keeping a small portion of the substrate permanently moist and simply placing the shelter over top. This is the method I use. In addition to using these areas for shedding, my geckos will often deposit their eggs at these sites.
Dry hides are also necessary in order to give the geckos a sense of security. A variety of devices can be used, depending on the tastes of the keeper. The geckos themselves do not seem to care. Inverted clay or plastic plant saucers with a hole cut in one section work well. In addition, there are a variety of naturalistic-appearing commercial hides available on the market. I almost always use sections of cork bark. Cork bark is lightweight, relatively inexpensive and helps give the vivarium a nice naturalistic appearance.
A water container measuring 3 or 4 inches in diameter is also necessary. Again, plant saucers work well, in addition to a wide variety of commercial vessels now available. Regardless of the type of container used, the water should be replaced at least three times a week and the container washed thoroughly.
Heating can be accomplished by a variety of methods. Commercial undertank heating pads work well if a thin substrate is used. Although providing a good source of belly heat, these types of devices do little to heat the air in the enclosure, especially if a thick layer of sand is used. There are a number of heat lamps and ceramic heating devices on the market that do a fine job of raising the air temperature within the enclosure.
If a lamp is used, it should be either red or specifically designed for nocturnal reptiles. Avoid standard incandescent and full-spectrum heat lamps, as leopard geckos will shy away from bright light. If ceramic heaters are used, take care not to overheat the enclosure. Providing a more spacious enclosure will allow for a temperature gradient to be established, with one area being in the upper-80s to lower-90 degrees Fahrenheit and the remaining sections to be somewhat cooler. In my experience, as long as the ambient room temperature remains in the mid-70-degrees range, a minor heat source is all that is needed to keep E. macularius comfortable and healthy. Yet, another option, and one that I have used for the past five years, is to simply keep the entire room warm. This method is particularly useful when maintaining other herps, as well.
With the right enclosure, your leopard geckos should thrive. Like me, you may even find hatchlings scampering about from undiscovered eggs!
Leopard gecko. Photo by Foster Reves
Leopard geckos are insectivorous and will accept a wide variety of live prey.
Leopard geckos are insectivorous and will accept a wide variety of live prey. Commercially available crickets (Acheta domestica) are a good staple, but I believe in providing as much variety as possible to any captive animal. Superworms (Zophobas morio), mealworms (Tenebrio molitor), many of the various roach species now available and waxworms (Galleria mellanela) are all readily available and eagerly accepted. Take care not to offer waxworms too frequently; Galleria are high in fat and so relished by many herps that other foods may often be refused.
I feed each adult animal individually with forceps approximately three feeder insects twice a week. Forcep feeding is by no means necessary, as leopard geckos are adept hunters, but I enjoy the interaction and it allows for frequent health checkups on each animal. As an occasional treat, I collect “field plankton” (otherwise known as local insects) from unpolluted areas and offer it to my animals. Grasshoppers, in particular, are relished. All insects, with the exception of field plankton, are dusted with a 3:1 ratio of calcium/vitamin D3 and multivitamin mixture prior to feeding. Many leopard gecko keepers, especially large-scale breeders, provide a dish of calcium and allow the lizards to lick it up at will. I still prefer to dust the insects directly, instead.
Leopard Gecko Popularity
The leopard gecko has well earned its reputation of being one of the easiest pet lizards to keep. Its beautiful coloration, moderate size, ease of handling and long life have made E. macularius a favorite of both beginner and experienced reptile enthusiasts. REPTILES
Foster Reves is a herpetoculturist, martial artist and registered nurse who lives in southwest Virginia. Current breeding projects include various species of Asian salamanders, geckos, snakes and unusual plants.