When it comes to the leopard gecko habitat, you’ve probably already heard that:
- Leopard geckos originate from dry, arid regions;
- Leopard geckos are not overly demanding when it comes to terrarium setup;
- Leos don’t require specialized lighting equipment.
But did you also know that:
- Despite their dry habitat, leos need a wet patch in their tank and a constant supply of fresh water;
- That certain commonly sold types of substrates can cause health issues in leopard geckos;
- That leos still require temperature regulation within tanks, but not provided by bright lights?
I firmly believe that a quality natural setup has been an essential part of my pet geckos’ well-being and health. Though certain elements can vary, all good leopard gecko tanks have some basic similarities.
Let’s explore the best types of tank setups for one of the most popular pet species of lizard, the famous leo.
Further reading: The Leopard Gecko Care Sheet
The Leopard Gecko Tank
A solid tank will be a basis for your leopard gecko vivarium setup.
The first thing to consider is the tank size. Minimum tank size for one leopard gecko is 10 gallons. On average, you have to increase the tank size by 5 gallons (~19 litres) for every gecko you add:
- 10 gallons (~38 litres) = 1 leopard gecko
- 15 gallons (~57 litres) = 2 leopard gecko
- 20 gallons (~76 litres) = 3 leopard gecko
Leos are ground geckos and prefer tanks that are long and relatively shallow. Avoid tall and narrow tanks such as those commonly used for chameleons or other tree-dwelling species.
A tank you will use for setting up your leo habitat can be made of different materials. I will cover the three most common types: glass, plastic, and wooden tanks.
Glass tanks for leopard geckos
Glass tanks are a classic option – and my personal preference. Glass has the highest visibility of all materials, it is chemically stable (doesn’t leach chemicals), and it is easy to clean and disinfect. If thick enough and handled correctly, it is surprisingly durable – a well-kept glass terrarium can look like new for decades.
The downside of glass is that it is heavy and prone to breaking. However, because leo tanks are generally not too big, the risk is undoubtedly smaller than for bigger glass terrariums or aquariums.
Another issue with glass tanks is that they can be pricey. Buying second-hand tanks can save you some money.
Plastic tanks for leopard geckos
Plastic tanks, made out of PVC or ABS plastic, have become popular in the hobby because of their durability and adaptability. They are lighter and less prone to breaking than glass tanks, and their sides can be drilled in order to fit cables and equipment.
Plastic tanks are either made out of separate plastic sheets, or come as professional, one-piece molded terrariums. They are usually expensive, but because you leos don’t require massive tanks, it is likely that you can find one for a reasonable price.
The downside of plastic tanks is that the cheaper ones are usually transparent only on the front side, while others sides are opaque. Also, plastic tanks are slightly more prone to scratching, so you have to be more careful when doing maintenance.
Wooden terrariums for leopard geckos
By construction, wooden tanks are similar to plastic ones. A plywood enclosure will have all sides made out of wood except for the front, which is usually made out of glass. Wooden enclosures are one of the cheapest options out there and are the easiest type to make yourself.
Some reptile enthusiasts wisely turn wooden shelves into terrariums. Because of their size, leopard geckos are especially suitable for bookshelf enclosures, and a bookshelf setup such this one can save you a lot of time, money and effort when you are housing many geckos.
The issue with wooden tanks is that wood is porous – it absorbs water which makes it prone to rotting and mold and makes it difficult to disinfect. The way to combat this issue is to apply a non-toxic, waterproof coating such as pond shield over the entire wooden surface. It will make smooth and waterproof, and also give it a nice, glossy finish.
Providing adequate ventilation is a must for terrarium containing leopard geckos, or any other lizards for that matter.
Ventilation in a tank can be passive, active, or a combination of the two. Passive ventilation is the most common – it is simply a mesh that covers the entire lid, a part of the lid, or another upper part of the tank. Active ventilation is achieved through electronic ventilators like those used inside your computer.
There are two main mechanisms which are used for opening tanks. One is from above, through a lid – this approach is more common with small terrariums. The second is from the front, where the front glass of the terrarium slides to the side.
The tank that opens from the front is a better option for several reasons. It is easier to access and clean, and lizards will be less fearful when you approach them from the front.
Access from the top can trigger protective reactions since in natural habitat dangerous predators usually lurk from above.
On the downside, with the front opening lizards are quicker to escape; also chances that you’ll leave the terrarium open by accident are greater.
You shouldn’t open the tank as a means of ventilating it on a regular basis. The risk of escape is simply too great, no matter how docile your leo looks.
Humidity & Water
Leopard geckos originate from the arid grasslands of Asia, so naturally, similar conditions should be replicated in captivity. There is no need to mist the entire terrarium as with tropical species of geckos.
However, a humid spot in the terrarium is a must. In their natural habitat, geckos will burrow and seek moister and cooler environment when they need it, and having a humid spot is a way to replicate that.
A humid spot is also necessary for the geckos to shed their skin properly. Without it, there is a great risk that old skin will get stuck on some part of their bodies, especially the toes.
How to provide a humid spot for your geckos? Take a box, coconut shell, reptile cave or some other type of enclosed or semi-enclosed shelter, and put hydrophilic substrate inside – coconut coir, peat moss or eco-earth. Then mist the humid shelter until moist, and check it regularly to see if it has dried out.
Geckos also need a shallow water tray in their tanks, preferably made from inert, natural materials (rock, porcelain, thick glass). The water should be easily accessible for them to lick it. Leopard geckos drink water a lot like cats do! Water should be changed at least every other day.
Leopard geckos are ectothermic animals, meaning that their body temperature depends on their surroundings. That is why you need to provide a fairly constant temperature in their tank, as well as a temperature gradient – a warmer and a cooler area within the terrarium. Leos will bask in their hotspot whenever they require additional heat and then go to cool down in the opposite part once they get too hot.
The optimum temperature for geckos is 75 to 85°F (~24 to 29°C) during the day, with the basking area going as high as 90°F (~32°C). If possible, the nighttime temperature should be in the 70s (~21°C).
There are several ways to provide heat for your leos:
- Suitable lights
- Ceramic heaters
- Heating pads
Black or red reptile lights will provide heat as well as non-intrusive lighting. However, they shouldn’t be used as only heating devices, and are best combined with heating pads.
Ceramic heaters are put in the place of light bulbs. Unlike bulbs, they provide only heat and not light. They should be able to do the job when it comes to heating in all normal circumstances.
Heating pads are simple heaters that are put under the tank. They are inexpensive and don’t waste a lot of power. The fact that they are placed under one part of the tank means that this will allow you to create a much-needed temperature gradient.
Never use heat rocks or any direct heating, as these could burn your gecko’s velvety, sensitive skin.
A thermometer to check the temperature, both in the cooler part of the tank and in the hotspot, is required to be sure that the temperature in the tank is within a good range.
The views on lighting for leopard gecko tanks have changed a lot in recent years.
Because leopard geckos are mostly active at night, the quality of light has been considered irrelevant for a long time. Lights were predominantly used as a heat source – for this reason, adding colored night lights used to be common, and daylight setups didn’t include UVB bulbs.
However, all the years of experience and a more in-depth analysis of leopard gecko needs have shed new light on the issue.
Although leos do not need a UV light to survive in captivity like diurnal lizards do, having a UVB light alongside a compatible (e.g., incandescent) daylight heat lamp is now considered to be highly beneficial. Leos will synthesize vitamin D3 even when briefly exposed to UVB light – and that is undoubtedly a much more natural way to get this essential vitamin then through supplementation only. That is especially true if you consider that leos are not entirely nocturnal, but crepuscular; in nature, they would get a certain amount of UVA and UVB exposure during their activities at dawn and/or dusk.
Also, studies have shown that even nocturnal lizards can register red light – perhaps not the color, but they see the light itself. That is why you should be careful with nighttime lights – red, blue, or black. Add the lights only when you got to know your pet’s habits well. Then you can watch out for changes in behavior after adding the night light. You can also keep the night light as a “watch light,” only turning it on for a couple of hours when you want to watch your geckos in the dark.
If your geckos seem to be disturbed by night lamps, or you want to err on the safe side, the ceramic heat emitters (CHEs) are an excellent alternative for adding heat during the night, without any illumination.
Here is a quick example of perfect 5-element lighting setup for any leo tank:
- Incandescent heat lamp as daylight.
- T5 or T8 5-6% UVB bulb (2-3% for albino geckos).
- Ceramic bulb for nighttime heating, or a heat pad if your tank is too small for CHE.
- Red, blue, or black night light, which should be for a couple of hours while you want to watch your geckos (optional).
- A thermostat and a timer to optimally control your setup.
When setting up your light system, there are a few basic rules:
- Set up the lights directly above your tank, and not laterally.
- It is best to control your lights automatically – via timer for precise day-night intervals, and via thermostat for proper temperature.
- Keep a safe distance between the bulbs and the leos, and always use a guard if they can access the bulb.
For more tips and information, please visit our Leopard Gecko Lighting article.
The choice of substrate is a very important question for your pet leopard gecko’s overall well-being. Why is that?
As ground-dwelling lizards, leos will spend a lot of time interacting with the substrate in their tank – they will run on it, hunt and eat on it, and even lay their eggs in it.
The first thing you should know is this. Despite bad advice from some pet shops, choosing a substrate is not as simple as just putting sand in your tank because “geckos come from deserts” – actually, leos do no come from sandy deserts, and sand is the worst substrate you could use for your leopard gecko! This even goes for supposedly-digestible calcium sand.
If you wonder what harm could a bit of sand do – you should know that your leopard gecko could literally die because of the wrong choice of substrate. By accidentally or purposefully ingesting sand, gravel, walnut shells or other loose indigestible substrates, your leo will have an extreme risk of impaction (link to the health article) – a dreaded condition in which gecko’s delicate intestines are blocked by hard matter.
That is why it is very important to choose your substrate carefully!
Here is a short list of good and bad leopard gecko substrates:
- Good and natural substrates: stone slate, large river pebbles, excavator clay.
- Good, but not-so-natural substrates: paper towels, reptile carpet, newspaper, ceramic tiles.
- Bad substrates: Sand, calcium sand, quartz, walnut shells, wood chippings, bark, and other “forest” substrates. Some leo owners will avoid loose substrates altogether.
- Debated substrate: Coconut fiber/eco earth
For more details on each type of substrate and substrate importance in general, feel free to check out our article on the best substrates for leopard geckos.
Hide & Decoration
When we say decoration, people usually think about something that has a purely aesthetic value. But in the case of the vivarium, “decoration” is usually the part of the habitat animals will be interacting with the most.
By breeder’s recommendation, I bought a terrarium with a stone wall made out of tufa limestone rock. While that wasn’t a perfect option since tufa is quite rough, it turned out as a great way to gain additional space in the terrarium since climbable 3D backgrounds efficiently increase the surface volume your lizards can move on. Though initially more expensive, it has tremendously improved my geckos’ movement ability and level of activity. My pets never suffered an accident because of the roughness of tufa rocks. But nowadays there are plenty of options for creating smoother and safer backgrounds.
Rocks And Bogs
Rocks and bogs are essential decoration elements. With the help of rocks and wood, you can structure your leopard gecko habitat and provide shelter and climbing surfaces for pets. The only important thing is to follow certain safety guidelines.
All structures that you create out of rocks must be firmly attached to other rocks or walls of the terrarium. A simple way is to use silicone glue.
You should always opt for smoother rocks. My experience with tufa rocks that are quite rough has been excellent, but I would be reluctant to recommend them to anyone. On the other hand, nature doesn’t always offer smooth rocks, and completely smooth rocks can be hard for your gecko to climb. The bottom line is – when deciding what type of rocks to put in your terrarium, use your best judgment.
Leopard gecko will often rest and cool down in their hideaway. A hideaway, or a hide-box, is a semi-closed structure. It could be a plastic box, reptile cave, wood or a rock structure that a gecko can use for hiding.
I recommend having two hide-outs: one in the hot spot, and one in the cooler part of the terrarium. This will help your gecko to regulate their body temperature during the day and in any situation. For example, a gecko that has eaten well will usually pick a warm hideaway to digest his food.
If you’re making a shelter out of stones and rock, make sure that they are safe and well attached.
Do Leopard Geckos Need Plants In Their Tank?
Leos do not require any plants in their tanks, living or fake. Still, some of you can’t imagine a natural terrarium setup without any greenery, so let’s explore plant options for a leopard gecko habitat.
Unlike tropical vivaria, most of the real plants can’t thrive in a leopard gecko habitat because of the lack of light and moisture. One of the rare exceptions are the so-called air plants. These slightly alien-looking rootless plants are very low-maintenance and can be attached to walls or rocks. They should be misted once or twice a week, and have at least some degree of light.
Some people recommend succulents with no spikes, though it will be difficult if you opted for a less-lit terrarium. Succulents are also sensitive to stale air. They are affordable and can be tried out easily but there is a risk of introducing intruders. Mites, nematodes or other tiny invertebrates may harm your leos.
Many setups include artificial plants. Including artificial plants in your terrarium is a matter of personal taste. There are some amazingly realistic artificial plants out there. Elaborate models are prone to getting dusty, so be sure to give them a good wash when you do regular terrarium maintenance.
Now It’s Your Turn
Your leopard gecko will interact with his terrarium environment every hour of every day. That is the reason why a quality set-up is very important for your gecko’s quality of life. The aesthetic value of a good-looking vivarium as an addition to your living space should not be overlooked either.
Was this introduction to the basics of leopard gecko habitat was interesting to read? If yes, feel free to share it.
Would you have anything to add or share your perfect leo vivarium? Let us know in the comments. We would love to hear from you!
— Main picture by Chris Parker
Air plants – genre of about 650 plant species that can thrive without soil and are very hardy.
Coconut coir – the fibrous husks of the inner shell of the coconut, used as a plant growth medium and tank substrate.
Heating pads – also known as undertank heaters, these are thin heaters that are placed under the tank. They take up to half of the surface under the terrarium.
Hot rocks or heating rocks – heating devices shaped like rocks and placed inside of the terrarium; hot rocks are not suitable as primary heating devices for any reptile and should be avoided altogether in the case of leos.
Plexiglas – acrylic glass; transparent thermoplastic often used as a lightweight and shatter-resistant alternative to glass.
Tufa rock – A type of a very porous limestone featuring a lot of small holes.
Stone slab – a large flat and relatively thin stone used for paving or covering walls.
Terrarium – a vivarium for smaller land animals – reptiles, amphibians, or terrestrial invertebrates, typically consisting of a glass-fronted tank and a more or less elaborate interior.
Vivarium – An enclosure intended for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research; vivariums often try to recreate ecosystems for a particular species.