If you're looking to get your very first pet lizard, the selection might feel overwhelming. After all, we're talking about an incredibly diverse group of reptiles. Bearded dragons and blue tongue skinks are two excellent choices for novice reptile-keepers.
But the most consistently recommended starter species is an adorable little charmer called the common leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius).
Wall-climbing is a talent most geckos possess. Toe pads lined with tiny, hair-like structures enable the majority of species to scale vertical surfaces (and occasionally hang upside-down on them).
Leopard geckos are different. Unlike some other commonly kept species, they won't climb up glass walls or poop on the sides of their enclosure.
See, Eublepharis macularius doesn't have adhesive toe pads. In its natural habitat, the creature has no real need of them. The species ranges from northwestern India and Pakistan through Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
In contrast to the tropical geckos found in Madagascar, New Caledonia and elsewhere, common leopard geckos like to keep dry. Wild ones inhabit arid grasslands and rocky deserts. In lieu of toe pads, natural selection's given them small digging claws.
Eyelids are another feature which helps the lizards get by. Most geckos cannot blink, but Eublepharis macularius and its closest cousins have evolved movable eyelids that can blink, wink and protect the eyeballs from sand.
Spots and Smiles
Eublepharis macularius isn't the only leopard gecko around. Asia and the Middle East are the home of a few other species, including the East Indian leopard gecko (Eublepharis hardwickii). But those are seldom kept as pets.
From here on in, when we use the name "leopard gecko," know that we're talking about the "common" species.
Exotic pet enthusiasts call these geckos "Leos." We think you'll agree that's pretty darn cute. Just like the animals themselves. Leo mouths have upturned corners, giving them a perpetual grin. With their big, closeable eyes, it's hard not to project human emotions onto your scaly pal's face.
The comparison to leopards stems from this species' natural color palate. Wild Eublepharis macularius are counter-shaded; their undersides look much lighter than the rest of the body. Above its whitish belly, a normal Leo is yellow to tan with patchy black spots.
But since it's easy to breed leopard geckos in captivity, hobbyists have developed all kinds of vibrant color morphs, from orange-tinted "Carrot Tails" to pattern-less "Blizzard Lizards."
Leopard geckos of every style make wonderful pets for people with small apartments. Newly hatched babies are just 2.5 to 3 inches (6.35 to 7.62 centimeters) long while most adults measure in at 7 to 10 inches (18 to 25 centimeters) long. That's less than half the length of a large bearded dragon.
Creating a Habitat
To keep an adult Leo happy and healthy, you'll need a glass terrarium that's at least 20 inches (51 centimeters) long by 11 inches (28 centimeters) wide and 13 inches (33 centimeters) tall.
Such enclosures are usually called "10-gallon" — or "38-liter" — units in American pet stores.
Top yours off with a secure wire mesh lid. Even though Leos can't climb glass, this'll give you some extra peace of mind while providing air flow.
Unable to generate their own body heat, Leos must be kept in an adequately warm environment. But the inside temperature shouldn't be uniform. Just like human beings, reptiles can get overheated.
Experts recommend keeping one end of your gecko's enclosure at 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (24 to 27 degrees Celsius) during the daytime. At the opposite side, the temperature should hover between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (27 and 29 degrees Celsius).
You can let both ends get slightly cooler at nighttime. However, the "warm" side of your terrarium should contain a small "basking spot" or "hide box" where the heat will remain steadfast at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) day and night.
Some hobbyists rely on overhead heat lamps; others prefer heating pads. Make sure that whatever product you choose was designed with reptiles in mind. And read all the instructions thoroughly.
You may also want to pick up an ultraviolet (or UV) lighting fixture. These are a matter of some debate among keepers. Leopard geckos don't need them per se, but the data suggests that keeping a UV light on by day has some major health benefits.
If you choose to get one, we'd once again urge you to keep away from units that weren't explicitly designed for reptiles and other living things.
Landscaping, Maintenance and Mealtimes
No leopard gecko should be deprived of hiding spots. Naturally nocturnal, they'll seek shelter from prying eyes when the sun's out. Get your gecko at least two hiding spots, and keep one of these internally moist at all times. Such a place will come in handy when the lizard needs to shed its skin.
Leos do well with a variety of substrates. Newspapers and paper towels are the cheapest options, but commercial "reptile carpets" and some ready-made, bioactive ground coverings work, too. Opinions differ quite sharply over the merits of sand; when lizards ingest too much of it — either accidentally or deliberately — it can be hazardous to their health.
OK, so what should they be ingesting? Leopard geckos are dedicated insectivores who fare best when given a steady diet of live mealworms and crickets. (More fattening bugs, such as wax worms, can be offered as occasional treats.)
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The insects your leopard gecko devours should themselves receive nutritious meals (like carrot chunks) before they're served up to the reptile.
- Lightly dust commercial calcium powders over the feeder insects. Without these supplements, your gecko may develop metabolic bone disease.
- Baby Leos need daily meals; adults feed every two to three days.
Complete your enclosure with small rocks and logs the resident(s) can climb around on. Also provide a shallow, sturdy water dish that's changed twice or thrice a week.
Leos aren't the most sociable beasts by nature. Even so, similarly sized females can be housed together without incident. Male-female pairings can work too — if you're prepared to handle their potential offspring.
But never, ever keep two males in the same container; they'll behave aggressively towards one another.
As a rule of thumb, you'll want an additional 5 gallons' worth (or 19 liters' worth) of cage space for every extra gecko.
Leopard geckos are generally docile and become quite tame with gentle, regular handling. (FYI: Don't grab their tails.) A Leo that's well provided for may live to see its 20th — or possibly 30th — birthday under your care.