Diplodactylus Geckos of Australia
Australia may be the smallest continent on the planet, but nowhere else on Earth will you find nature as grand and intriguing. So, it’s no surprise that Australia is home to so many exotic creatures, and Australian geckos are no exception.
Australia is estimated to be home to 115 species of reptiles belonging to the family Gekkonidae. With approximately 23 species, the Diplodactylus genus is one of the largest. Whether you’re a fellow fan of Australian geckos or you’re just now learning about these special creatures, I hope this article will provide some insight into the natural history, captive care and husbandry of these remarkable geckos.
With 23 different species, it is not surprising that the appearance and habitat of Diplodactylus can vary considerably. But even given their differences, these geckos also share many similarities. All display large eyes set laterally on their heads. The size of their eyes helps the geckos locate their prey in the wild, and I think it contributes to these lizards’ striking and almost alienlike appearance.
Coloring, patterns and body structure can be highly varied from species to species, but all Diplodactylus display pleasing combinations of earth tones, including shades of brown, gray and cream. Back-pattern color variations can be unique and eye-catching, featuring various combinations of basic stripes and/or spots to more intricate patterns, such as the zigzag pattern of D. vittatus or what is referred to as a box pattern on the beautiful D. steindachneri.
These attractive markings are not only a wonderful display courtesy of nature, they ultimately help provide camouflage for the geckos. Unique body markings and color variations can often vary considerably within species, but little work has been done to create subspecies classifications to date.
Diplodactylus are typically smaller geckos. The majority of the species range between 3 and 4 inches. Weight is usually in the range of 3 to 5 grams.
A few species can attain a more medium size, including D. immaculatus, which can grow to 51⁄2 inches, and D. vittatus, which often grows to 5 inches. On the other hand, some species can be quite small, such as D. tessellates, which when fully grown is usually only 21⁄2 inches.
The body structure of Diplodactylus falls into what I would describe as two broad categories: those with long, slender tails and those with robust, stocky tails. Diplodactylus damaeus is a great example of the group exhibiting long and slender bodies and narrow tails. On the other side, D. conspiculatus embodies the group with stockier bodies, shorter legs and fatter tails. Fittingly, this gecko’s common name is the fat-tailed gecko, but it should not be confused with the similarly named African fat-tailed gecko (Hemitheconyx caudicinctus).
Like other geckos, Diplodactylus species drop their tails if placed in stressful situations or as a last-resort defense mechanism. Although the tail regenerates, autotomy can be a very stressful experience for a gecko. The tail contains about one-third of its weight.
Life in the Wild
Most Diplodactylus species can be found living primarily in dry, arid or semiarid areas of Australia, and they are normally found in forested or shrubby locations. One exception is D. vittatus, which is often observed in the wet coastal forests of New South Wales.
All species find protected areas to inhabit: underneath stones or vegetation, inside fallen trees or abandoned reptile or spider burrows, and even inside cracks in the soil. Although the list of potential Diplodactylus abodes is long, the common thread among them is that these geckos need to find a home that shelters them from the extreme heat of the Australian day. All species are nocturnal, emerging in the cool of the night to hunt and feed.
Little is written about the behavior of these geckos in the wild, and it is likely due to the fact that they are nocturnal and need to stay protected during the day. I’ve noticed captive Diplodactylus are fairly active during the evening. They constantly patrol their enclosures.
Diplodactylus in Captivity
Several geckos, including leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) and crested geckos (Rhacodactylus ciliatus), have become mainstays within the reptile industry. For the most part, Australian geckos, including Diplodactylus, have been uncommon. They have not yet enjoyed the same popularity as their distant family members.
However, I believe these geckos have immense potential to gain popularity. They are accessible to both new hobbyists and accomplished collectors because many species have basic captive care requirements. By and large, this genus does very well in captivity and has a typical life expectancy between five and eight years.
Increasing the visibility and availability of Diplodactylus outside of Australia falls completely on captive breeders. Australia has taken major steps to protect its native wildlife, and in 1999 its government established the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which imposes strict regulations on the export of most Australian native species. As a result, Australian geckos cannot be exported out of the country, and the reptile industry has been forced to rely on captive-bred colonies established before these tight regulations were enacted.
Diplodactylus Captive Care
Although each species has its unique characteristics, the general captive requirements for Diplodactylus geckos are quite similar.
Caging. They can be kept in a variety of different types of enclosures, and because of their terrestrial nature, the setup does not need to be complex. The best option for many pet owners is a glass enclosure, such as an aquarium or terrarium. A 5-gallon aquarium provides adequate room for a pair of average-sized Diplodactylus geckos. Those who want to breed these geckos and who are keeping several specimens should consider a rack system. Diplodactylus can be housed individually or in groups, but two males should never be housed together because they will fight.
Heating. Proper heat is an important aspect of Diplodactylus care, and I believe it is best provided from below. In the case of a glass enclosure one can use an undertank heater, such as a heating pad or heat tape. The breeder’s best option for a rack system is a heat cable or heat tape controlled by a thermostat. Reptiles are ectotherms and rely on their environment to control body temperature, so it is important that the heat source for Diplodactylus remains in the mid-80s (degrees Fahrenheit) and that it is situated at one end. This allows geckos to thermoregulate by moving from the heat source to a cooler area of the enclosure that ranges in the mid-70s. In other words, do not heat the entire enclosure.
In general, these geckos prefer a dry environment, and they do not need much humidity.
Lighting. Diplodactylus geckos should be exposed to light for 10 to12 hours per day, but because they are nocturnal, they do not require UVB lighting.
Substrate. I use about 1 inch of sand as a substrate, but care should be taken to ensure you do not put sand that’s too fine in the enclosure. In my experience, play sand is a good choice.
Shelters. Diplodactylus geckos are nocturnal, so shelters within their enclosure provide them with peaceful retreats in which to sleep or hide. These can be as elaborate as you like, or they can be as simple as a plastic container turned upside down with a door cut in the side to allow for the geckos’ passage.
I recommend placing a shelter on both the warm and cool sides of the enclosure, so geckos can thermoregulate without becoming stressed.
Diplodactylus Water and Food
Most Diplodactylus species prefer to drink water droplets as opposed to standing water. Lightly misting the cool end of their enclosures, including the cool-end shelter, two to three times per week with lukewarm water is ample.
Diplodactylus geckos should be fed a diet of insects, which typically includes crickets or other small insects. I prefer to feed my geckos smaller, more frequent meals, and I typically feed a meal of five crickets every second day. Crickets should be appropriately sized for the gecko. As a general guideline, do not feed crickets larger than two-thirds the size of a gecko’s head.
I am a big proponent of gut loading insects before they are offered as food. Gut loading ultimately means the prey insect acts as a vehicle to pass on beneficial nutrients to your gecko. Use either a commercial gut-load product or a mix of baby cereal, fish flakes or high-grade, dry dog or cat food as well as leafy greens such as endive, dandelions and romaine lettuce.
Also dust prey items with calcium powder at every second feeding, and a supplementary vitamin should be dusted about once a week. Crickets can be put in the enclosure to roam, but to avoid any unnecessary stress to the gecko, they should be removed within a few hours if they haven’t been eaten.
All commonly kept captive Diplodactylus geckos readily accept crickets and other small insects. Other species can have specialized diets, which can result in captive care challenges. A prime example is D. conspicillatus with its natural diet of termites. This species is best suited for more experienced Diplodactylus enthusiasts. Compelling it to accept other food items has mixed results. Offering crickets that have had their legs pinched off is a technique with which I have had fairly consistent success.
Get to Know Them
From my experience, few resources on Diplodactylus are currently available to reptile enthusiasts outside of Australia. I hope this article has either helped give you a new appreciation for this gecko genus or provided you with information you wanted to know. As more individuals discover and begin working with these unique geckos, I believe their numbers in captivity will soar.
Generally, Diplodactylus do exceptionally well in captivity, and if they are properly fed, housed and kept in enclosures cleaned regularly, they should be a healthy, enjoyable pet or a prized species within your collection. Now, perhaps you, knowing their unusual appearance and easy care requirements, will want to further explore the exotic and beautiful world of Diplodactylus.