How to Care For The Madagascar Ground Gecko
The Madagascar ground gecko (Paroedura pictus) is the ultimate gecko species for novice reptile enthusiasts. This eye-catching terrestrial gecko is readily available, does exceedingly well in captivity and certainly won’t break the bank. Hobbyists and commercial breeders have bred in captivity large numbers of P. pictus, which originally hails from coastal and scrub areas of southern Madagascar.
The most perplexing issue regarding this species is, oddly enough, the common name. Or should I say names? The Madagascar ground gecko is often sold under these trade names: panther gecko, big-headed gecko, ocelot gecko and Malagasy fat-tailed gecko. All are the same gecko species. Hobbyists and breeders have shortened its scientific name, Paroedura pictus, to just “pictus,” so everyone knows exactly what the animal in question is. For this article, I also will use pictus to refer to the Madagascar ground gecko.
Pictus geckos are naturally shades of brown, rust and cream with black outlining their markings. These earth tones afford this terrestrial lizard extraordinary camouflage in leaf litter. The belly tends to be cream-colored with no pattern.
Babies do not exhibit the same markings as adults, but they have rather high-contrast banding. As they mature, the pattern breaks, and they take on more adult colors with each passing molt.
The normal phase and the striped phase are the two most commonly seen pictus geckos in the pet trade. The striped pictus has a thick cream or white line running from the base of its cranium, and often this line is uninterrupted all the way to the tip of the tail.
It’s not hard to see why pictus geckos are sometimes referred to as “big-headed geckos.” They have a proportionately large skull, particularly the males. Tails are thick on well-fed individuals, but they’re not as fat as leopard or fat-tailed geckos’ tails. Ringed segments of the tail are ridged, but again, they’re not as pronounced as some other common terrestrial geckos. From my experience, regenerated tails look almost indistinguishable from the originals, and usually the pattern is also restored.
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A moderately small gecko, a male pictus commonly grows to about 5 or 6 inches in length, and females are slightly smaller, usually measuring just less than 5 inches. Fairly negligible space requirements are needed in order for pictus to thrive in captivity. A standard 10-gallon terrarium is suitable for housing a single gecko, or one male and several females, but a 20-gallon long tank would be better. Never keep more than one male to a cage because they are very territorial, and fighting may result in serious injury or even death.
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Some geckokeepers, including me, have great success keeping and breeding this species in plastic shoeboxlike setups of appropriate size. I house breeding groups of one male and three females in plastic containers approximately 23 inches long by 16 inches wide by 6 inches tall.
I have tried numerous substrates with these geckos, including newspaper, peat moss, coconut mulch and bark chips. My medium of choice is a fine-grade coconut fiber. It holds water well, and I have never encountered any impaction problems. I add scattered dried leaves to the fiber mainly for aesthetic value.
The other substrates I mentioned all work fine, but I recommend staying away from sand, gravel and corncob bedding because they are difficult to spot-clean and may cause impaction.
Handle with Care
Often called “pictus” to avoid confusion, Madagascar ground geckos are docile and make good pets for keepers who like to handle their lizards from time to time. Still, it’s important not to overdo it because too much contact may cause stress. Like many lizard species, pictus geckos can lose their tails if frightened or handled roughly.
Never grab any gecko by the tail. Babies are delicate, so be particularly gentle with them. A pictus of any age or size will feel more comfortable walking along a hand maintaining a loose grip than by being restrained.
Handle them inside the cage or inside a low plastic shoebox container first, so they can become accustomed to you. This way, if the gecko darts off your hand, it doesn’t have far to fall.
Pictus geckos are not biters by nature; they will only do so if handled roughly. A bite is hardly severe enough to break the skin. My only personal experience happened during feeding time. I was offering crickets to my geckos with my fingers, and one obviously missed the intended target and grabbed my finger instead. No harm was done, but using long blunt-ended tweezers is probably a better way to safely hand-feed these lizards.
An incandescent heat lamp atop a screen lid should keep the warm side of the cage around 85 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Shut off the light overnight, and allow the temperature inside the cage to drop to the low or mid-70s. For a few bucks you can pick up a reptile thermometer that eliminates the guesswork.
Some geckokeepers also use an undertank heating pad on the same side of the cage as the light fixture. This creates a hotspot under the light, and inhabitants can still retreat to the other side of the cage to escape the heat if they choose. Keep the heating pad on day and night. This helps keep the substrate warm in a certain area of the terrarium and provides belly heat, which aids the gecko with digestion. The other advantage to using an undertank heater is that it may prevent your pet from getting chilled during the night if the temperature drops much lower than expected. A heater plugged in all night keeps the ground warm, but no light is emitted, which upsets the natural photoperiod of this nocturnal species.
Keep in mind an incandescent bulb is used primarily for heat. This lizard does not seem to benefit from full-spectrum ultraviolet light bulbs. Because it is nocturnal, it will, in fact, spend most of the daylight hours hiding. Some geckokeepers like to keep a red bulb on 24 hours a day because it gives off heat and enough light to watch the lizards even at night.
Don’t estimate temperatures. This gecko’s skin is sensitive, and it can be burned if allowed to come in direct contact with a heat source. For this reason, heat rocks are not appropriate for ground geckos of any kind.
A humid hide box is necessary for this species. You can create one by cutting a hole in a small plastic container filled with damp substrate, or by using something a little more creative, such as a halved coconut shell turned upside down with damp substrate underneath. Medium-sized containers approximately 8 inches long by 5 inches wide by 3 inches tall work well. This accessory greatly helps with shedding, and it may also serve as a nestbox for females.
Provide these boxes in both the cool and warm ends of the terrarium. A good rule of thumb is to provide the same number of hide boxes as there are geckos, even though they often share the same one.
Offer water in a shallow dish, and mist once per day to raise the humidity. These two provisions go a long way in promoting a clean, trouble-free shed.
Pictus are often called “ground geckos” for a reason: They are terrestrial. They do not need a lot of vertical space. Offering high perches is not a good idea because they do not climb well and may injure themselves in a fall. Caves and low-level cage furniture work best. Keep in mind that even though they are not exceptional climbers, a secure terrarium lid is still highly recommended when keeping reptiles of any kind.
The Madagascar ground gecko is an insectivore, and crickets make up the highest percentage of its diet in captivity. An adult pictus can safely handle three-fourths-inch crickets, and hatchlings should be fed pinhead crickets. These geckos also feed eagerly on other bugs, such as mealworms and waxworms of appropriate size. Offer these other insects sporadically to generate dietary variety.
A feeding schedule of four to six prey items every second day seems to work well as a maintenance diet for adults. Offer three or four prey items every day for the babies.
This species is prone to secondary hyperparathyroidism, so do not underestimate the need for calcium and proper diet. Use a commercial calcium power every second feeding for adults, and gravid females and babies should receive it every feeding. I always keep a shallow dish with calcium powder in the cage with breeding groups. Individuals needing more calcium will simply lick it out of the dish at their leisure.
Also, make sure to gut load feeder insects with high-quality food to ensure that the geckos get the most out of their meals.
Sexing Paroedura pictus is effortless once geckos reach 3 to 6 months old. Males have large, prominent hemipenal bulges at the base of the tail. These protuberances are absent in females. Adult males also tend to be more robust and have larger heads than females. The former method is a subtler, secondary means of sexing that professionals who deal with large numbers of pictus use to sex adults at a glance. Under proper conditions, pictus geckos are generally sexually mature around 9 or 10 months of age.
Always set up a breeding colony with one male to several females, not just one pair. A male practically breeds the life out of a single female, so multiple females will keep him busy. No seasonal manipulation is required to stimulate reproduction. As a rule, breeding occurs overnight. The male often grabs the female behind the head during copulation, and this grip can create minor wounds. These normally superficial cuts heal on their own. I have only seen one drastic case where a rather large male brutally injured the back of a female’s skull, and she eventually died. Although this kind of aggressive mating rarely occurs, it is something to keep an eye out for.
I usually put a male with the females for a few weeks, and then I remove him until the females stop laying eggs and have a chance to fatten up and rest. This isn’t an exact science; I just observe their behaviors and condition closely and make a judgment call when I think they are ready to start breeding again.
A humid hide box is required as an egg-laying site for the females. A small plastic container, such as a margarine container with a hole large enough for the lizard to enter cut out of the side or top, will suffice. Damp medium should fill about one-third of the container. I have used peat moss, sphagnum moss, vermiculite and coconut fiber with good results.
When eggs are deposited into the container, females usually create a pile on one end with the substrate, which lets you know the eggs are ready to be harvested. Pictus eggs are harder shelled than other commonly bred gecko eggs, but they still must be handled delicately. They are also quite small. Some breeders use a spoon to move the eggs into an incubator to prevent accidentally crushing them.
Incubate eggs in damp vermiculite at approximately 84 degrees. If eggs are fertile, hatchlings should emerge in 51 to 65 days.
Pictus geckos are immensely prolific, and breeding them in captivity is practically effortless. In fact, breeding them is conceivably too easy. Although herpkeepers at most levels have a strong desire to successfully propagate their herps in captivity, captive breeding brings great responsibility.
This prolific nature may be the only drawback this lizard presents for beginners. A well-planned strategy for hatching the eggs and caring for the young must be in place. When a female becomes gravid, she requires an enormous amount of food, and any lack of calcium results in deformed bones and potential death. Finding homes for dozens of these little cuties may also prove to be more challenging than initially expected. In other words, there is no room for sloppiness or neglect when breeding these lizards.
Paroedura pictus breeders have developed several color and pattern morphs. Red, striped, three-striped, marbled, red-marbled, xanthic, axanthic and hypo specimens have been marketed. Albino individuals have been reported, but most geckokeepers are skeptical for now. They believe any “albino” P. pictus is in fact a xanthic animal. The genetics of certain morphs seem to be the subject of debate among many hobbyists, but few deny the splendor of these little creatures. More experimentation is needed to get a better grasp on the hereditary possibilities.
No matter which side of the fence you are on in terms of the genetic potential, note that even the most costly P. pictus morphs are not too expensive for the average hobbyist to afford. And look out. More contrast and variation in these geckos is expected in the future.
Paroedura pictus has found a large fan base among the herpetocultural community. It has character and beauty that any geckophile can appreciate, it breeds easily, and its affordable price tag will no doubt make an impact on beginning geckokeepers.