Selling the Charm of the Crestie
There are some good reasons why crested geckoes have become so popular in the herptile pet market.
I am often asked, almost exclusively by folks outside the herp hobby or trade, “What’s trending in your business?” Those within the field know that “trending” is hardly an applicable word—the popularity of various exotic species seem to fluctuate on 10-year cycles, in contrast to the typically fast pace of fads in our instantaneous culture and the electronic age. For instance, I can tell you that 30 years ago, enormous snakes and iguanas were all the rage, but I hardly carry iguanas any more, as the more predictable monitor lizards have taken their place in popularity. A combination of legal trends and the daunting prospect of keeping huge snakes has made giant pythons and anacondas something of a rarity in the past decade. I can also tell you that the 1990s saw the ascent of the now near-ubiquitous bearded dragon, which had only entered the pet trade a few years previously.
More recently, the dizzying array of color morphs in captive-bred ball pythons has captured the public imagination. Once rare and off-puttingly expensive, unusual color and pattern variations are now mostly reasonably priced and commonly available. The byproduct of this latest trend is that people are developing a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of genetics and, by extension, science. That is a very good thing indeed.
The only other thing I can point to as a trend in our business is the burgeoning popularity of the Rhacodactylid geckoes—specifically, the crested, or eyelash, gecko (Correlophus ciliatus). Like all the Rhacodactylids, they are natives of New Caledonia. So named because of the fringe of scales above each eye, these geckoes are virtually the perfect pet lizard in just about every respect. They truly are a trending animal in that while having been initially scientifically described in 1866, they had been considered extinct for decades, until their rediscovery in 1996. After their rediscovery, a few leaked into the pet hobby, and in just a few years, cresteds emerged as the “it” pet of the modern era—at least in the herp world.
The once-dominant pet-trade favorite leopard geckoes are fast fading into the background as cresties—as fanciers are fond of calling them—steal the limelight. The historic popularity of leopards was based primarily on their easy-going personality, as they tolerate handling with a placidity almost unseen amongst lizards. Cresties are almost that docile; the fact that they are arboreal makes them more prone to jumping than the terrestrial leopards, but they are otherwise equally calm and amenable to human contact.
They are similarly sized—about six to eight inches as adults—and easy to breed. They have the same velvety skin, making them a tactile pleasure for their owners. Their colors are also equally vivid and variable, and we are beginning to see a myriad of colors emerging through captive reproduction. Like leopards, they are nocturnal, and they remain calm and good-natured even when roused mid-day.
I have only one word of caution: When frightened or mishandled, cresties will lose their tails—like many geckoes. However, unlike many geckoes, cresties’ tails do not grow back. Once lost, the tail is indeed gone. To that end, we sell cresties without tails at a discounted price as Bulldog Cresties. The name seems to help folks get past the loss, and the crestie doesn’t seem to care much.
So far, I have made a pretty good case for cresties being equal to leopards, but that does not quite explain why they are still out-competing leopards in popularity. What makes cresties so universally popular? I see two main factors. The first has to do with their setup and care. Leopard geckoes are semi-desert and scrub residents; they do well in a 10-gallon tank with sparse décor and fairly intense heat. I sell them with not only a heating pad underneath the tank, but overhead lighting as well. By contrast, the crested gecko is a cool-weather rainforest animal, requiring minimal heat—a small spotlight is more than sufficient—and a tall tank that can be outfitted with live plants, drip systems, and a deep and mysterious look.
In fact, when experienced herpers ask me how to keep cresties, I always liken them to dart frogs, which require pretty much the identical setup. Cresties, however, are easier to feed. Like most geckoes, they are largely insectivores, but they also respond well to soft, sweet fruits, as befits their arboreal lifestyle.
I would be missing the mark at this point not to mention my friend Allen Repashy, who has pioneered the manufacture of powdered foods for herps. He started with the development of a diet specifically for cresties, and while there are now a few imitators on the market, the Repashy diet is tried and true, and I recommend it heartily.
So, it is an animal that is easy to maintain, requires a setup that begs to be showcased beautifully, is hardy and long-lived, and is easy to breed and thus commensurately inexpensive. Perfect, right? Well, maybe better than perfect. I mentioned that there are two things that make cresties such a marketplace winner. Setup and care was the first, but the other factor is something rare indeed in the herp marketplace. Cresties are nearly universally seen as cute.
I’m the kind of guy who finds cuteness in some mighty unlikely places. I think newts are adorable. Millipedes? Cute as a bug in a rug—literally. Hognose snakes, with those little upturned noses, are as cute as kittens. And nothing is as adorable as a toad squatting like a curmudgeonly old man on a park bench. But that’s just me. Most are unlikely to share my point of view. Yet, I have never had a single person look upon a crestie as I take it from its enclosure with anything but heart-melting, sugary love. And, once that person has held one, it is the rare soul indeed who is able to walk away without taking it home.
There are a few other related geckoes on the market that also bear mentioning: the gargoyle gecko (Rhacodactylus auriculatus) is a similarly sized, shaped and maintained gecko that tends to have beautiful pin striping in its coloration and a somewhat more ornate head, with little bumps and ridges that give it something of the appearance of a gargoyle. They are a little less common than the cresties and thus a bit pricier.
Then there are the giants. The leachie (Rhacodactylus leachianus) is the largest living gecko, sometimes attaining a length of 14 inches. These are solid, massive feeling animals, but they exhibit a similar look and equally benign behavior to their smaller kin. These are still truly uncommon and can fetch a very high price, but truth be told, it is an animal that sells itself. I have seen folks, once introduced, literally scramble to find ways to pay for such a wonderful beast. I would not be afraid to run even a small reptile department and decide to stock this animal—they are that awesome.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.