Meet the Menagerie: Lord Ivan et al
Time to introduce you all to the first lizardy-baby to enter my life, Lord Ivan the Not-So-Terrible. Ivan was adopted two years ago from an old high school acquaintance who couldn’t keep her two leopard geckos any more. I took Ivan, and Kenneth took Java. We’ve since had many other leopard geckos arrive in our lives — first Java had babies, then Kenneth rescued two more leopard geckos from a person who didn’t know how to properly care for them and was bored with them, then more babies, and, well, you get the picture. Most of the babies have been adopted out to other homes, because we can’t possibly keep dozens of geckos around. But we’ve still got quite a few of these friendly little guys.
That’s Ivan there. He’s pretty normal-looking, as leopard geckos go. A wild leopard gecko wouldn’t have such bright yellows, but the colour and pattern are pretty standard. Leopard geckos have been popular pets for many years, now, so there have been lots of fancy colour morphs developed in captivity through selective breeding. Just take a look at Vladimir, Kenneth’s Tremper Albino male:
Notice the brighter orange colouring, the light eyes (always a sign of an albino), the brown instead of black spots, and the more broken-up pattern on the tail. Vlad’s colouring would be pretty useless for camouflage in the wild, so you can tell that this was a colour morph developed in captivity. And there are even stranger things out there — check out this list of leopard gecko morphs. Just among our little collection, we’ve got Lola, a Hypo Tangerine Carrot Tail morph; Adrasteia, a Patternless little girl with light colouration; Java, a Jungle morph with dark colouring; and Frigga, one of Lola’s babies, who we’ve decided to keep because she’s almost patternless except for a few spots on her head, and she’s got some nice white “snow” colouring.
As you can probably guess, it’s often hard to tell exactly what you’ve got. There are a lot of trade names out there for specific genetic lines, and leos have so much variation that you can wind up with totally random, very cool-looking individuals who simply don’t fit into any established morph. This is because leopard geckos in the wild have a lot of genetic variation from region to region, and most morphs are recessive traits. So even breeding together two completely normal-looking individuals, you can get some totally unexpected new traits showing up in the babies.
The scientific name for leopard geckos is Eublepharis macularius, which refers to the fact that they are spotted (macularius) and to the fact that they have true eyelids (eu = true, blephar = eyelid). Many geckos do not have eyelids, and instead rely on licking their eyes to keep them clean. Leos are able to lick their own eyeballs, but mostly rely on their eyelids to keep their eyes clean and moist. Since they come from desert regions such as Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, this only makes sense: unlike many geckos, who live in humid regions and rarely encounter particulate matter that could irritate the eyes, leos live in a place where eyelids are something of a necessity.
As you can see from the photos, leos have big, fat tails (they are in fact related to the similar-looking African Fat-Tailed Gecko). A chubby tail is a sign of a healthy and well-fed individual, and this is where the gecko stores most of its fat reserves. Leos can drop their tails if threatened by a predator (a process called “caudal autotomy”), which is why you should never pick up a gecko by the tail. The tail will re-grow, but a re-grown tail is never as pretty and symmetrical as the original, and until the tail has grown back the gecko is at severe risk of health problems. Without their fat reserves, they are at great risk of malnourishment, and of course there’s always the chance of infection as the new tail starts to grow. The risk of tail loss is why you should never keep two male geckos together — they may fight for territory, and during the fight one or both geckos could drop their tails. You also sometimes need to be careful with housing females together, because some females are more aggressive than others. Kenneth’s female Jungle morph, Java, is sometimes prone to aggression, and so we don’t keep her with the other girls.
Leopard geckos make excellent pets for anyone who’s just starting out in the lizard hobby, and are a good one to introduce kids to. They’re relatively small (only growing up to about 8-10 inches long), and a 20 gallon tank is more than adequate for a single individual. They’re also very friendly and easy to handle, especially if they’ve been handled regularly throughout their lives and are accustomed to it. Even if they do bite (which is rare) it’s not serious, as they don’t have much in the way of teeth. Usually it doesn’t even draw blood, even on a thin-skinned individual like me. I’m silly enough to hand-feed them from time to time, so I have received a few accidental bites when my fingers were mistaken for tasty treats. Ivan’s very gentle about feeding and hasn’t ever bitten me, but Lola and Jave are more competitive eaters.
Besides a 20 or 30 gallon tank, leopard geckos do need a few things to be healthy and happy. A heating pad or heat tape beneath one end of the tank is the best way to provide a basking area, as leopard geckos absorb heat best through their bellies. In the wild they don’t come out when the sun is high in the sky, because it would be too hot for them — they prefer to wait until the day has cooled off, and then they will lie on the still-warm sand to get their heating needs. A temperature gradient should be provided so that the gecko can regulate its own internal temperature by moving from the hot side to the cool side of the tank — the hot side should be kept around 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cool side around 75. A light on a timer to provide some sort of circadian rhythm is recommended, but, unlike many lizards, leos don’t need UVB light in order to metabolize vitamin D, so a regular bulb works just fine. A spot to hide should be provided at each end of the tank, and at least one of these hiding spots should be a “moist hide”. Although leos come from the desert, the humidity levels inside their burrows can get quite high, and a hide box with a high humidity level makes shedding more easy for them. The easiest way to create a moist hide is to simply put some moss in there, and spray it regularly with water to keep it damp.
Leos are carnivores, and are best fed with a variety of insects that have been dusted with a calcium supplement. Like many lizards, they are prone to metabolic bone disease if they’re not getting enough calcium, so supplementation is very important. Crickets are the most commonly recommended food, but they also live quite happily on mealworms, superworms, roaches, and occasional fatty treats like silkworms and butterworms (not too many of those, though, or you can end up with an obese gecko). In general, an adult leopard gecko only needs to be fed about four or five crickets, once or twice a week. I also like to leave a small dish full of calcium powder in the enclosure at all times, because if they are feeling calcium deficient they will go and lick at the powder. And of course, fresh water should be provided at all times, because even though they live in the desert, leos are healthier and happier if they can get all the water they like.