What’s there not to love about leopard geckos?
It is a popular beginner pet lizard, but also a favorite among seasoned breeders who dedicated their careers to these charming miniature dinosaur look-alikes.
I’ve successfully kept leos for more than 14 years, and there is no pet I’ve enjoyed more. The amazing color range, the docile temperament, the unique characters, the seemingly-smiling faces… these are what makes leopard gecko a great pet and a joy for every reptile enthusiast.
Let’s not forget the fact that they are undemanding, hardy, easy to care for and breed!
Leopard Gecko Anatomy
Crossbreeding of different subspecies created the variety of leo morphs we know today. Hybridization of different species of the genus has also been conducted successfully in a scientific setting. Showing the possibility that leopard geckos can also naturally hybridize if populations of different species come into geographic contact.
Leopard geckos are small to medium-sized, but sturdily built lizards. Their length ranges from 7 to 8 inches for females, and 8 to 10 inches for males. Although there are giant varieties available from some breeders.
Moveable functional eyelids, lack of lamellae and dark spots form various patterns along the entire body make them special. As for the texture, their otherwise velvety skin is evenly covered with small, round and hard bumps.
Their general anatomy makes them perfectly suited for living in rocky, hilly, arid grasslands of their natural habitat.
If you provide them with a natural setup, your leopard geckos will climb rocks as they have feet with flexible fingers and claws. Note that they can’t climb smooth surfaces.
Their big build mirrors the fact that they are adapted to a not overly active lifestyle. Although, when they have to, they will run reasonably fast.
Leopard Gecko Eyes
Their movable eyelids add to their charm significantly. Eyelids are also a convenient feature in a sense they reduce the chance of eye injury in the wild, as well as in the terrarium.
Leopard geckos’ sight functions well, both in the light and in the dark because they are adapted to crepuscular lifestyle. This means that they are most active in the twilight but they do have random intervals of activity throughout the day too, depending on their needs and outer stimuli.
Despite their eyes being almost mammal-like at first glance, they lack many characteristics of a mammalian eye. That includes the production of tears. The lack of tears explains why your leos are licking their eyes to keep them clean and moist.
Leopard Gecko Ears
Right behind the eyes, leopard geckos have ears that look like simple holes on the sides of their heads. But look closely, and you will notice a thin, transparent eardrum. The ears are actually very sensitive to sound and to vibration, which helps them hunt prey, avoid predation, and presumably communicate, since they can also vocalize when threatened.
Leopard Gecko Mouth and Tongue
Leopard geckos have small sharp teeth in their mouth that they use to lacerate insects they feed on. From a human perspective, leo’s teeth are extremely small and non-threatening. Their accidental nip feels much more like a pinch then a bite.
It almost never draws blood, though I (painfully) learned that they could hold on for quite some time before letting go, especially when hungry.
Leopard geckos almost never bite to attack their owner. The nips frequently occur if you feed them out of your hand since your lizards can easily mistake your moving finger for food.
One of the amusing anatomical features of leos is their adorable tongue. Like all lizards and snakes, leopard geckos have Jacobson’s organ on the tips of their tongues. The small olfactory organ is what provides them the sense of smell – lizards flick their tongues to smell their environment.
Leo’s tongue flick is not as fast and menacing as those of snakes; their tongues are somewhat stubby. They look like licking the air, which adds to their charm.
> Further Reading: Mouth Rot in Leopard Geckos
Leopard Gecko Tail
Leo tails seem substantially fat when compared to the rest of the body. They actually use their tails to store fat and water in the case of unfavorable conditions in their often-harsh habitat. This allows them to survive for a significant time with no food or water.
Leopard geckos have the ability to lose their tail if they get caught or bitten on it. The detached tail can continue to move on its own for as long as 30 minutes. This evolutionary mechanism devised so that while the predator is busy with the moving tail, the “owner” of the tail – that is the gecko – can escape into safety.
The tail will grow back, but will never look the same as the old one. It will usually be more stubby and of a different color pattern than the rest of the body.
Be aware: you leopard gecko can shed its tail. You should never try to pick it up by its tail. Also be sure that its habitat is safe and stable to crawl around.
> Further Reading: The Leopard Gecko Care Sheet
Sexes of geckos differ in subtle ways. Like with many animals, male geckos are bulkier and heavier than their ladies. But due to natural variability of this feature, it is not a reliable basis for sexing geckos.
The most reliable way to tell a difference between a male and a female gecko is to look at their belly, specifically the ventral side of the tail basis. There you will notice a line – the cloacal opening.
On the side of the opening closer to the tail, males will have two small symmetrical bulges. This is where their hemipenis is located. On the side of the cloacal opening closer to the belly, males have glands which form a V-shaped dotted pattern. Females lack both of these characteristics – their ventral side is smooth and even.
Geckos can be precisely sexed only when they are over six months old. Younger males will often look like females.
If you are a beginner, it might be difficult to tell the sex of an individual just by looking at one lizard. The best way to learn is to compare several fully grown individuals.
Leopard Gecko Behavior and Body Language
Leopard geckos are not social animals.
However, they display a moderate amount of social communication through their body language. They also perform other typical behaviors that can be indicative of their health and well-being. It is then important for a gecko owner to know how to interpret them.
Leopard geckos use various signals to communicate with their environment. Remember that you will observe all aspects of body language more frequently in juveniles and young geckos. In case these behaviors diminish as your gecko gets older, everything is fine, it is common.
Tail Shaking and Wiggling
The tail is the main tool of communication between geckos. They will use slow wiggling to inform others of their presence. A male will use a specific wiggle when he wants to introduce himself to females. The more vigorous shakes can be defensive, appearing when a leo feels threatened, irritated or come under an attack.
In defensive situations, the tail is used as a distraction since a leopard gecko can afford to lose a tail to save his life. Energetic shakes can occur in offensive situations as well – happening when the gecko is delivering an attack or hunting.
Sometimes, your leopard gecko will shake energetically its tail when you try to handle it. It is a sign that it is not used to your hands and your presence enough. At this point, if you try to pick it, your leo will try to escape. This might result in a tail drop or a bite.
If that happens: try to keep your hand in the vivarium for a while, but at a safe distance.
Shaking Head and Swaying
You can observe this behavior while your gecko is swallowing a larger insect – he will sway his head from side to side. The movement helps your lizard pass the food from his throat to his stomach, and it is entirely natural. To avoid digestion problems, I would advise giving your geckos insects that are smaller.
Sometimes, head swaying occurs independent of food intake, and especially if it is followed by vocalization. It could mean that your leo has something stuck in his throat.
Noises and Meanings: Chirping and Squeaking Sounds
All geckos can produce a chirping and squeaking sounds. They will usually squeak when they feel threatened. The sudden nature of a chirp is indicative of its evolutionary role. It seems to be devised to startle the potential predator.
Although these sounds are entertaining, please abstain from provoking your gecko to squeak or chirp since you would be stressing him. Some geckos also seem to vocalize when they’re in pain, so pay close attention if you hear squealing for no obvious reason in mature animals.
Tank Climbing and Glass Surfing
All leos will try to climb tank’s glass at one point or another, and this is normal. My geckos seem to believe this will get them more food. However, terrarium climbing can be a sign that something’s wrong in their environment and that they are trying to escape it.
When you notice tank climbing, make sure:
- that temperature in the terrarium is within the normal range,
- that the gecko is not being attacked by others,
- that there are no mites in the substrate or on the geckos,
- and that the terrarium is big enough and has enough surfaces for climbing and hiding.
Being mostly crepuscular animals, most of the leopard geckos will hide during the day. My geckos tend to get active around 5 PM, and as the dawn approaches, they will go to sleep again. They are always asleep by the time morning comes.
If your gecko has been hiding for 24 hours or more, check on him. Rather than pulling him out of his hiding place, try to bribe him out with food or other tactics (see “Training”) since this will provide you a better conclusion about the state they are in.
The most common reason for excessive hiding is that the tank is too cold, so be sure to check the temperature. If the temperature seems to be within the desirable range, and the gecko doesn’t react to food or other stimuli, consider other health issues.
> Further Reading: Leopard Gecko Habitat: How to Setup the Ideal Tank?
You can’t train a gecko in the real sense of the word, but you can create a reflex so they will react to specific cues. The most obvious interest of your gecko is of course food. There are not many other things to think about when you are a lizard. Leos have decent appetites, and you can use their interest in feeding to “train” them.
My geckos know that the food is coming when I tap on their tank. I used gently to tap my nails on the glass before feeding them, and in time learned to connect the sound and the vibration with their meals.
Consequentially, whenever I tap, they come running towards the front glass. Besides impressing my guests, this comes as useful when they’ve been hiding for a while, and I’d like to do a quick check if they are responsive and healthy.
When it comes to toilet training, leopard geckos come “pre-trained”. They will pick one corner of the tank and go there nearly every time. This is not the consequence of any sort of training – it is just their natural behavior.
> Further Reading: What Do Leopard Gecko Eat?
Do Leopard Geckos Have Personality?
The question of whether reptiles have personality in a true sense of the word is always a cause for debate. While some owners will swear about the connection they share with their cold blooded-pets, others dismiss this as a clear case of anthropomorphization. And indeed, with their smiling faces, blinking eyes and lively behavior, leos are ideal for projecting of human or mammalian traits onto them.
While they display social behaviors, reptiles are not truly social creatures. Their brains lack certain parts that are found in social mammals. This is crucial for high-level emotional processing and social bonding. Therefore, as far as we know, they can’t truly bond with their owners.
They can be tamed, learn to recognize when a family member appears in front of their terrarium, or enjoy the warmth of your hands. But leopard geckos don’t really need to be held or petted as social mammals do. Keep this in mind when deciding how much you want to handle your leo. Too much handling or acrobatics such as putting him on your shoulder can be stressful.
While your leopard gecko might lack advanced social skills and profound emotional life, that doesn’t mean he lacks characteristics that make him unique. In my experience, individual leos have a myriad of personal preferences and behavioral quirks which we could loosely call “a character” or “a personality.” Some will prefer certain foods; some vocalize more than others; some like to hide while others rest stretched out in the open, some don’t mind being handled and others do. If you have a couple or several individuals, comparing their characters promises a lot of fun.
In any case, loving your pet will do you all good, even if the love is not completely mutual.
Leopard Gecko Health & Diseases
Although leopard geckos are healthy and hardy as a species, naturally certain health conditions can affect them. As you will see, most of them are related to bad rearing and keeping practices. Fortunately, that also means that most of them are easily preventable.
Let’s explore the most common leopard gecko health issues.
Leopard gecko impaction occurs when they accidentally swallow hard substrate such as sand, or eat insects that are too big or have hard shells. The indigestible material blocks their intestines. If not treated, impaction can result in the death of your pet.
The signs to watch out for are failing to pass stool, food rejection, sluggishness, bloating and changes in the colour of the abdomen.
If you believe your leo might have an impaction, the first thing to try is to bathe them in warm water. The water level should not be above his shoulders, as you don’t want to drown him. Spending time in the water is slightly stressful for a gecko, but the swimming movement could help him pass stool.
If the baths fail, contact a reptile vet immediately. Impaction is usually difficult to treat, so it is best to prevent it instead. Be careful not to give your gecko hard foods, or equip your terrarium with loose substrates that can be swallowed – especially if you are letting your leo hunt freely around the terrarium.
Egg binding in females can sometimes be mistaken for impaction. We will discuss this condition in our article about breeding.
> Further Reading: The Best Leopard Gecko Substrates
A healthy gecko’s old skin will come off all in one piece. However, if the environment is too dry, or there are other underlying health issues or mineral deficiencies, pieces of old skin can remain stuck on certain parts of the body. It is essential that you remove them to avoid further complications. For example, leos can lose fingers due to hardened old skin “rings” that stop the blood flow.
Be careful to not pull the skin when it is not necessary as you can hurt you leo this way.
> Further reading: Leopard gecko shedding guide
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
Metabolic Bone Disease, or MBD, is similar to rickets in humans. Because of the lack of important minerals or vitamin D, bones become soft and deformed, resulting in leopard geckos being unable to move or even eat properly because of a deformed jaw. MBD demands the immediate start of treatment with calcium and vitamin D3. The treatment will not be able to correct the damage that has already taken place, but it will stop further deformations. Always be mindful that young leos are at greater risk for MBD, especially during the first year of their life, so make sure they are getting their supplements.
External Parasites – Mites
Mites are the most common external parasites in terrariums. These tiny tick-like invertebrates will pierce your gecko’s skin and feed on his blood. Also, they will live and breed in the gecko’s terrarium.
A veterinary stool sample analysis will confirm an endoparasitic infection. Prognosis is usually bad, but some treatments can reduce the number of parasites and perhaps help save your gecko. Proper vet support is essential if you are dealing with internal parasites.
> Further reading: Leopard gecko dying signs
Besides quality care, the best prevention against spreading parasites and all other diseases is to put all newly acquired geckos in quarantine for a period of watching and assessment. Some breeders recommend that the quarantine period should last for as long as three, or even six months. In any case, it shouldn’t be shorter than a month. That might seem like a drag, but it is in the best interest of your loving pets.
Anatomy – a field in the biological sciences which is dedicated to identification and description of body structures.
Anthropomorphization – the act of attributing human characteristics or personality traits to animals
Crepuscular – animal mostly active at twilight
Eublepharis – a genus of lizards that the common leopard gecko, Eublepharis macularis, belongs to. It consists of 6 similar species.
Jacobson’s organ – also known as the vomeronasal organ, it is an olfactory sense organ found in many animals, including all reptiles and many mammals.
Lamellae – special padding found on the pads of gecko’s feet, allows them to climb smooth vertical surfaces by utilizing the electrodynamic force.
Sexual dimorphism – the difference between male and female individuals of the same species.