Looking at the leopard gecko and its correct housing

Over the past two issues we have taken a rather in-depth look at the wonderful and commonly kept leopard gecko Eublepharis Macularius. We have explored the animal within its wild environment, the most commonly kept species along with its related subspecies, its usual daily activities, the truth surrounding its natural diet, the levels of energy that surround and provide for it, and also its rather complex and highly patriarchal social hierarchy. 

We have looked at the natural traits that have allowed this species to do so well within captivity for so long, and we have explored some of the more historic methods of keeping. We then introduced the basics surrounding the installation of the now more accurate, modern and naturalistic methods of long-term captive care.

The leopard gecko is a complex sentient animal with defined physical and ecological needs, as laid out by the provision of the wild environment and manifest by its daily activities and internal processes. Thankfully, it is also a rather robust and highly adaptable animal, built to thrive come what may, in what can become seasonally quite harsh surroundings.

They seem to be highly driven by a need to survive and indeed to reproduce, no matter the differences that exist between the habitats in which they have developed over time in the wild, and the methods of care which were once historically used. 

On the whole, this has species not only survived in captivity within these rather barren and unwild-like systems, but they have also bred successfully and in quite huge numbers. This poses a number of questions of course. If this level of basic care did not replicate the wild in full, but did allow effective long term captive breeding, can it be viewed as being both effective and ethical?

Surely these are two of the benchmarks for forward thinking reptile keeping. The answer to this question can only be given at a personal level and per keeper. It is true that many animals were kept this way, adored and kept with very high standards of care by their owners, apparently wanting for nothing. On the other hand, the leopard gecko when kept in an energised way and allowed to display wild-like behaviour certainly will – no matter the number of generations that it has been removed from the wild.

I have said before that the need for life to go on via procreation is a far greater force than the limitations of what could be seen as short term basic care, and indeed a level of undersupply (external energy/digestible nutrition) and poor enrichment in the adults. Maybe there is a level of truth here that needs to be explained and refined with each and every generation of keepers.  

Naturalistic keeping, when provided correctly, of course, allows an animal to live and thrive within a replicant of the wild habitat in the home. If correctly implemented, the animal will experience external energy levels that provide for it in a wild-like and natural way, thus allowing the whole body to function as natural development over time dictates.

The naturalistic system will also be decorated in a way that allows the animal to dig and burrow, climb and clamber and for this species especially, to set up and maintain a defined territory. The leopard gecko is a species that actively uses burrows and tunnels, watch/basking points and will even allocate a communal latrine. They display a sense of male-led order in the wild and for good reason.

All of these actions work to offer protection to the group, staves off breeding away from the alpha male, helps to protect them from predators and also helps to keep the networks tidy and again, lowers the risk of predation. They are able to roam over distances in the wild if required, however a group will usually be maintained within a fairly sizable set location and as a male- led family. 

I pointed out the benefits of providing both adequate vertical and horizontal space to allow them to be able to live and move with a degree of freedom, whilst also being able to self-regulate their own level of exposure to external energy as they need and to the level that is required at any one time.

I also pointed out that this is a species, which occupies a very wide geographical area, indeed over multiple neighbouring countries and over a number of terrain types. This closely related group of species are found within quite harsh arid rocky terrain through emergent grass scrub and into the quite humid and flora rich forest edges. Some of the subspecies can be categorised by species and kept within the habitat type from which the species is found.

I explained that the only difference between a naturalistic and a bio-active system is the addition of custodians. A custodian is usually a group of invertebrate species added to live within the enclosure in order to break down waste and to help maintain the system as a whole. A highly functioning bio-active system will be similar to a working slice of the wild.

However, we must always remember that the keeper must always be seen as the apex custodian, working hard and frequently to ensure high levels of care by ensuring that the whole system is working as it should. Some may feel that the bio-active keeper is a lazy keeper who allows a system to rest upon its own devices, does not clean and as such allows a level of risk. In truth, the good bio-active keeper has to work hard and often to ensure that the system is both fed, clean and functioning.

The most important part here is the element of naturalism. I passionately believe that the wild supplies everything that an animal needs to thrive, therefore it must experience a level of similar interaction and stimulus in order to do so in captivity, minus the risk of predation and avoidable disease of course.

Even the provision of naturalistic decoration should be viewed as part of overall nutrition as it both helps to exercise the body and aids with bodily processes such as digestion. Allowing the body to move is therefore important and care should be taken to use adequately sized enclosures.

Interestingly, the feedback that comes back from keepers that have moved from sterility to properly energised naturalistic enclosures is that the animals are far more active for far longer during illuminated and unilluminated periods. This demonstrates visually that the species is indeed not solely nocturnal and may even have periods of daytime activity away from the now commonly held category of being crepuscular.

The feedback also demonstrates quite regular and self-selected periods of open basking, better shedding, increased feeding aggression and of course the emergence of natural instincts such as digging and burrowing. We also see reports of a decrease in the time spent in caves with those keepers that have moved from heat mats or heating cables placed under the substrate to overhead heating devices that provide the terrestrial wavelengths.

This does make sense as an animal would have to expose itself to a mat or cable for a longer period of time in order to obtain the same amount of energy as it can obtain from the terrestrial wavelengths with quick open basking as the terrestrial wavelengths (IR-A, IR-B) impact the body to a greater depth and carry more energy. This can allow the animal to be more active and over a greater area of the enclosure.  

It seems that with each step taken towards providing a replicant of the natural habitat, that we unlock more and more of the wild skills and abilities. It is quite amazing to both be a part of, and to read about.

I will also say, that all of the updated keeping methods shown above are only possible now that we have good access to the equipment needed to create these systems in a safe, effective, measured and controlled way. Within these improvements we also help to remove what some anti keeping activists may surmise as improper care and a lack of stimulus.

What we seek as a goal is reptile keeping perfection which demonstrates ethical and effective long term care. 

However, a level of risk remains, as with all human endeavour. We are seeking to replicate the wild and in doing so simple mistakes can lead to unintended accident or harm. In very simple terms, there is a risk of an over or under supply of external energy, a risk of improper nutritional provision and a risk of accidental damage from poorly secured decoration. 

We must ensure that we offer a full and varied diet which is both properly gut-loaded where possible, and is suitably treated with a full-spectrum mineral base powder. This will help replicate natural feeding, drinking and purposeful or unintended but nevertheless useful geophagy. We need to monitor what is being consumed and that animals are neither over nor under fed.

With regard to feeding, no matter how high the quality of livefood becomes, we will still find it almost impossible to provide the sheer variety and indeed invertebrate gut content differences that exist in the wild. 

As I pointed out in previous editions, the leopard gecko obtains and consumes a vast array of foods in the wild from inverts and other small reptiles, to avian nestlings and both avian and reptilian eggs. Some are also documented to have been found with small parts of flowers in the gut, whether this came from purposeful feeding or as being incidental as an invert was caught we may never know.

Supplements are there to help make up the differences found between the wild and the captive diet, in particular the minerals. If UV systems are used correctly the need for synthetic oral D3 decreases, it decreases further still if pink mice are offered three to four times a year or so.

The use of defrosted rodents in this species is not as common as it could be and could be the result in either a lack of information or a disinclination of the keeper to offer such foods. Supplements can now be found that contain no synthetic fat soluble vitamins but offer the natural mix of minerals and water soluble vitamins. These must be obtained within the diet at regular intervals. 

We should always supply a source of standing water regardless of species and then also mist down the enclosure as per the needs of the species. This increases humidity and replicates the beginning and end of the day from which heat rises carrying moisture into the environment.

By maintaining a deep naturalistic substrate and growing live plants we also increase useful hydration whilst lowering the risk of stagnation. This increases overall humidity which will aid the natural shedding process and can work with some species to directly increase hydration. For bio-active keepers, custodians should be selected to work hard, reproduce well but not pose a risk to the animals. The animals may also include them within their own dietary variety.

As such stool sampling is required during the year to ascertain and treat any unwanted parasitic load. If left untreated there is a risk of continuous reinfection. These infections reduce nutrient assimilation and puts pressure on the immune system.  

Full-spectrum and UV-B systems should be placed above the head and over the basking zone. Lamps should be well reflected and chosen to produce a ‘wild-like’ and safe index of energy (UVI). If we over supply UV, that is to provide an index that is greater than the level of protection that exists in the skin allows for, we risk burning the animal. Reduced pigmentation and animals that display albinism are particular risk of burn here, even if the natural requirement for UV exposure does not change.

If we undersupply UV, we limit the bodies ability to start and to maintain the natural production of and further use of vitamin D3 and the far-reaching ongoing cycles. If the UV lamp is of unknown origin and unbalanced within the total spectrum of UV, we can limit the bodies ability to naturally self-regulate and recycle within the D3 cycle. Again, it is the replication of the wild that is key to captive success. 

We must also create a system that allows easy and effective self-regulation between heat and light and cool and shade. Forcing an animal to be exposed to energy from light at all times and over all areas does not provide it with the ability to self-regulate and can have a negative effect within the cycles that go on to produce D3.

More is not always better. UV systems should also be measured with solar meter 6.5 index meters, this is the only proven and trusted method and unit of measure. In this way we can match the usual level of energy found in the wild at the point in which the animal is found to that which is provided in captivity. This is the only way to be totally sure of the efficacy of our UV systems. 

The use of good quality thermostats is a must. Being able to accurately measure and control our heating systems equates to saved lives and sometimes lower running costs. A good thermostat will maintain a preselected temperature, thus removing the risk of an under provision of heat and even worse an over provision. Excess heat is dangerous, impacting an animal negatively and very quickly. Stats can also save money and increase lamp life. If a system is up to temp, why run 100% power through the lamp, we stress the lamp, waste electricity and overheat the enclosure.   

We should also make sure that all natural decoration is securely installed. Rock is rather heavy and if not properly affixed poses a fall risk. Slates can be drilled, and dowels used to secure them. Smaller pieces of rock and pieces of wood can be stuck together with aquarium sealant. In all cases, it is better to use natural stone than plastics which do not retain heat well and can pose a VOC release risk when heated.

Stone such as slate not only looks great but it retains energy from infra-red well and then allows this energy to be readmitted back into the enclosure in the longer wavelengths of infra-red, namely IR-C. The energy contained within these photons is released into the air and water droplets in the air, thus warming the air; this is exactly how our sun provides us with heat.

Directly within the short and medium wavelengths as a direct source and then via the readmittance of energy through convention as the longer wavelengths. The stone will warm naturally, and this warmth can be used to warm the belly, just as in the wild. This is also an aid to digestion and a secondary source of energy to the skin. 

The leopard gecko is a complex and highly developed animal with needs and requirements, but these can be provided for in an accurate, safe and measured way in captivity. Even small groups of animals can be kept together, if the care is correct, the keeper has enough experience and the enclosure is large enough. These will be as single male and multiple female social and breeding groups. 

We are a nation of animal lovers regardless of our position in the hobby, keeper or trader. We all want to see our animals do well and to be able to have access to these animals for generations to come. As equipment continues to advance and keeping method improve, it is vital that we as professionals stay ahead of the curve, being that ever so vital first port of call for keepers.

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