Whenever we keep exotic animals in captivity, the home we provide should resemble its natural habitat as closely as possible. Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) originate from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Northwest India, and Pakistan. There they live in semi-dry to arid, rocky grasslands and desert areas where they need claws rather than sticky pads like other geckos have.
Leopard geckos need accommodation that resembles the key elements of their natural habitat; a place to feel safe, where it’s warm, and has humidity areas and furnishings that allow it to scratch when shedding. Leopard geckos avoid sandy areas.
In creating a home for your pet gecko, you want to ensure that all the essential elements are present minimally. Below I cover those elements as well as some bonus information. In caring for my Leos, I go the extra mile to make the space I provide feel like home for them.
Leopard Gecko Native Habitat
The native habitat of the leopard gecko includes the rocky, dry grassland, and desert regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, northwest India, western Nepal, and some parts of Iran. Leopard geckos inhabit arid and semi-arid areas with sparse vegetation and rocky habitat where crevices can be used as shelter.
According to Wikipedia, they reportedly avoid areas where the primary substrate is sand. Winter temperatures within the range of the leopard gecko can be quite low, below 50⁰F (10⁰C)), forcing the animals underground into semi-hibernation, called brumation, living on fat reserves [Link]
Leopard Gecko Trivia
The outstanding feature of the leopard gecko is its eyelids – so phenomenal amongst geckos that its species name literally means good eyelids.
Another bit of trivia – did you know that the leopard geckos have a spinal cord in their tail? Scientists are awed by Leo’s ability to repair this spinal cord, regrowing it. This is something that humans only wish they could do.
What also makes the leopard gecko special ( in addition to having a segmented tail and movable eyelids) are the vertical slit pupils and clawed toes.
Leopard geckos are mainly nocturnal animals that shelter under rocks during daylight. In their natural habitat, leopard geckos are insectivores, though they are known to be very adaptable.
Their most active times are at sunrise and sunset. In their natural habitat, they’re seldom seen for the middle eight hours of the day. They’re used to 12 to 14-hour-sunlight days.
Terrarium (Tank) Setup
Leopard geckos are terrestrial (unlike the crested gecko, which is arboreal (lives in trees)) and spend their time on the ground. The picture on the right is a typical environment for terrestrial geckos – it has:
- Crevices in which to hide for safety
- Some grass that would attract insects
- A lot of sun and shade
- Hollow spaces where water would gather
- Not much sand that could cause impaction
- Roughage to use when shedding skin (ecdysis)
- Humid areas for egg-laying
Leopard geckos are typically housed in terrariums (glass-walled or fronted enclosures). If the terrarium is made of wood, it should be adequately sealed to make cleaning easier. It is not recommended to keep the terrarium in direct sunlight since it will overheat. Make sure the terrarium is well-ventilated and secure.
The enclosure should be as big as possible – a tank measuring 24-inches x 18-inches floor space and 12-inches high is the minimum size for 1-2 adults. Leopard geckos live on land and generally do not climb; it’s important to focus on available floor space and not only volume.
While there are sites that propose a per-gallon size, this can be misleading – what you’re aiming for is maximized floor space. Do not house two male leopard geckos together, as they will fight. If you house a group of females or males and females together, increase the tank size as you add animals.
Leopard geckos are one of the easiest reptiles to breed but keep in mind that not all information on the web is reliable. If in doubt, check out this website or seek the advice of a vet or veterinary nurse before breeding. Also, before you let your Leo have hatchlings, be sure that you can find good homes for them all.
Larger geckos compete for food – it’s in their nature. In a smaller cage, bigger geckos will hog the food and heat sources and pose a threat to smaller geckos. A larger cage reduces the risk of aggression but does not fully eliminate it – monitor the geckos closely and separate them if there’s any sign of weakening or aggression.
Ideally, you want a tank that stands off the surface, allowing you to position heat mats below the floor but on some insulation to protect the table surface. More on this later.
The substrate is the term used for what lines the bottom of the cage. My personal favorite is stone tiles – they are attractive, easy to keep hygienic, and safe. An ideal substrate is inexpensive, aesthetically pleasing, easily cleaned, absorbent, and won’t cause harm if swallowed. Substrate should not contain plastic; rather, natural material like brown paper, flat newspaper, reptile matting, cork, or slate tiles. Avoid any material that smells of chemical treatment.
Do NOT use kitty litter, gravel, cedar shavings, crushed corn cob, wood shavings, or potting soil that contains fertilizer, vermiculite, pesticides, or wetting agents. Please don’t use Calcisand – its marketers claim it’s safe for reptiles, but it can cause intestinal blockages and eye problems. Sand easily sticks to food and can be ingested, building up in the intestines, so it is not recommended.
I recommend Reptile Carpet, Coconut Fiber Substrate as an option – more than 85% of the 600+ users have given it a 4 and 5-star rating.
Hiding Places (Lairs)
In nature, leopard geckos hide in the clefts of rocks – a narrow gap between two rocks. It protects them from predators while providing other creature-comforts like heat, humidity, or coolness. If you construct a gap, make sure it is stable and won’t collapse and crush your Leo. Most keepers use cardboard tubes, modified flower pots, or commercially available options.
I recommend the Zilla Rock Lair (as do 90% of others that have bought it). If your gecko rejects the hiding place you created, try a different one, move it to a different location, or get the Zilla Rock. Ideally, you want to offer alternatives – maybe two to three hides – a warm hide, a humid hide, and a cool hide. Place some damp coconut coir in a hide to increase the humidity, placing it in the middle of the tank (half on/half off the heating pad).
Humid hides are essential for egg-laying females, but remember that the hide’s temperature influences the gender of the eggs. In the tank, you should be aiming for a relative humidity of 40 to 60 percent (to aid easier skin shedding). More on this later.
Climbing rocks and basking areas are essential but can also be dangerous. Basking rocks must be warm effectively warmed by a secondary heat source without getting hot. Variety, as with food, gives your Leo some choice of where to position itself in the terrarium. Make sure they are clean and nontoxic. I recommend the Zilla Shale Rock Den, as do 83% of the thousand other buyers on Amazon.
Appropriate plants in the enclosure can provide humidity, shade, and a sense of security. They also add an aesthetic quality to the enclosure. Be sure they are nontoxic. Hibiscus, Ficus benjamini (weeping fig), or Dracaena (dragon tree) are good choices, though you’ll need to prune some of them to keep them short (or replace them regularly).
Check if the plants have been treated with pesticides and if the potting soil contains vermiculite, pesticides, fertilizer, or wetting agents. Washing the plant with water and thoroughly watering it many times until the water runs out of the bottom of the pot could help remove any hazardous chemicals that may have been applied. It’s also good to keep newly purchased plants in a different section of the house for a while before putting them in the enclosure.
To be safe, Fluker’s Repta Vines are considered the best option for creating a synthetic alternative (more than 85% of the 7,000 owners give it either a 4 or 5-star rating)
Leopard geckos have a body temperature identical to that of their surroundings. They are adapted to desert areas and require additional heat to stay healthy and perform biological activities like digesting. They love temperatures in the 70s at night and 75-85°F during the day.
When a reptile is chilly, it cannot digest its food efficiently and is more likely to develop unwell. Lizards prefer a temperature gradient, which allows them to travel to a warmer portion of the cage when cold and vice versa. Install a high-quality thermostat in the cage where the gecko spends most of its time so that the temperature is automatically controlled.
I recommend the Ceramic Heat Emitter for Reptiles with an 89% approval rate from 5,000+ users.
Primary Heat Source
To keep the temperature of the entire cage within the correct range, a primary heat source is required. It is possible to employ ceramic infrared heat emitters or panels that create heat but little visible light. A series of incandescent lights can also be used to illuminate the cage, but these lights must be switched off at night, and an additional heat source may be required depending on the ambient temperature.
A space heater or a separate room thermostat can be employed to keep the room at the proper temperature in bigger enclosures. Fire alarms should be installed in rooms with lights or other heat sources.
Secondary Heat Source
Facilitate a temperature gradient by adding a secondary heat source that generates more heat in various cage regions. The secondary heat source should only cover 25-30% of the enclosure’s surface to best supply this gradient. Special ‘basking lights’ are also available. From outside the cage or behind a guard, either sort of light should shine down on a specific basking area.
The hottest spot should have a temperature of 90°F beneath the light. Hatchlings in smaller tanks will require lower-wattage lighting, or the terrarium temperature may quickly become too warm. Hot rocks should not be used as heat sources. It’s important to monitor temperatures, ensuring they remain within the proper range.
Leopard geckos are nocturnal and do not require as much UVB as other species. Still, a two percent bulb should be provided during the day to aid in vitamin D3 production, which is necessary for a healthy skeleton.
I recommend the Fischuel Flexible Heating Lamp UVB Lamp with Clamp Fixtures with an 89% approval rate.
Leopard geckos need a 40-60% humidity level to shed properly. To build a wet box to help shed, fill a hide box made of plastic or Tupperware with moist peat moss and a small entry hole. To keep the peat moist, mist it from time to time. Adult geckos shed once a month on average, although juvenile geckos might shed up to once a week. If your gecko has trouble shedding, consult a veterinarian (also referred to as Dysecdysis).
Automated Leopard Gecko Environment Monitoring
For less than $65, you can set up an Arduino environment monitoring system that will track the following essentials in your leopard geckos’ environment. The unit can connect to your local internet via WiFi, and your data can be visualized on a dashboard – the design is your choice.
- Absolute pressure range: 260 to 1260 hPa (3.77 to 18.27 psi)
- Humidity range: 0 to 100% – accurate to ± 3.5% rH
- Temperature range: -40 to 120 °C. (-40 °F to 248 °F)
- Lux range: 10 to 100,000 lux.
- UVA resolution: 16-bit; unit μW/cm2.
- UVB resolution: 16-bit; unit μW/cm2.
- UVIndex: 1 to 11+.
The Arduino Cloud® platform is free for home developers, and the coding for the app is provided. You can check out the tutorial that shows you how to do it and what you’ll need here. Making an app that measures and records the vital statistics of your leopard gecko’s tank may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it might be an option worth exploring.
Leopard geckos have a lifespan of up to 15-years, so the initial investment in creating a home away from home is important. Being able to automate heating and lighting processes reduces the risks. Minimally, you’ll need to measure humidity and temperature levels as these play an important role in your Leo’s wellbeing.
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