The Crested Gecko
Thanks to its charming nature and delightful appearance, the crested gecko is reigning supreme as the industry’s most popular pet lizard.
I have often remarked how slowly things change in the world of the reptile hobbyist. It took decades for the popularity of the green iguana to be supplanted by that of the leopard gecko, and a few decades more for the bearded dragon to ascend to the position of prominence as the world’s most popular pet lizard. And now, the new kid on the block, the crested gecko (Correlophus ciliatus), seems about to overthrow the reign of the bearded dragon.
There is nothing in this business I love more than when an animal comes with a good story, and the story of the little crestie (as they are popularly called) is as good as any I’ve heard. It’s a story that not only immediately hooks a customer into the fascination of these little lizards; it also puts our business and hobby in a very flattering light indeed.
First discovered and described in 1866 in New Caledonia, it was soon after deemed extinct. After all, no living specimen was again seen (at least by scientific eyes) for nearly 150 years. The next specimen to turn up was after a tropical storm in 1994. Once rediscovered, many of them made their way into the pet trade before, a few years later, they were rightfully declared endangered and New Caledonia banned their exportation.
Luckily for us and them, it turns out that they adapt quite well to captive life and are steady and consistent breeders, to the extent that their inherent charm can now be enjoyed by all. They can also be offered at a price competitive with all the other popular pet lizards. The ban on exportation, by the way, has done little to help the cresties in the wild. They are threatened by an introduced predator, the little fire ant. This ferocious insect not only competes with the cresties for food; they regularly attack the geckos themselves.
And so we have an animal that has a great backstory—who doesn’t love discovery, loss and redemption?—but that isn’t the driving force behind its popularity. This little lizard embodies just about everything one would want in a pet lizard. They are gorgeous, as selective breeding has, in just 20 years, produced a number of color and pattern variations. They are sweet and easy to handle. They are easy and relatively inexpensive to set up. They are hardy. They are one of those animals that, once a potential client has one in his or her hands, the sale is essentially done. They are irresistible.
So, let’s start with handling. The big difference between handling a crestie and a leopard gecko is their attitude toward height. Leopards, being ground dwellers, don’t have a good understanding of the perils of height, and are likely to simply walk out of a person’s hands and fall to the floor, causing injury or death. By contrast, the crestie’s arboreal nature means that it responds to height by simply leaping. On the up side, that means that a fall rarely results in injury; they are built for it. On the down side, that means that the handler has to anticipate sudden leaps. One thing that helps is to always hold one’s hand in an upright position (I tell kids to “make a little tree”) and let the gecko climb to the top. That will often satisfy them, and they will sit comfortably for several minutes. Another tip is to hold one’s free hand nearby and slightly higher, giving the little one a likely target for the next leap. After a few minutes, kids tend to view this not so much a challenge but as a game, and a fun one at that.
Cresties are that perfect combination of beauty and cuteness. They range in color from vivid red to charcoal, and, as pretty as they are when you show them to customers in the daytime, they actually color up at night—a point one should never forget to mention to prospective owners. They are a lovely size as well; most adults are about six to eight inches long, and never require a huge enclosure. Their skin is velvety soft, and their tiny claws never hurt. Their faces are whimsical, framed in tiny ‘eyelash’ scales and forever looking slightly surprised, as if they had just run into an old friend.
Setups are an easy thing to accomplish, and in this way, once again, cresties have a few slight advantages over leopard geckos and bearded dragons. Beardies live in desert and rocky outcropping terrain, and are diurnal. As such, they require intense UV lighting. Leopard geckos, from similar habitats, are nocturnal, but also benefit from such lighting. Cresties inhabit relatively cool rainforests. They too would appreciate a little UV (many nocturnal geckos will sleep on tree trunks in broad daylight, thus absorbing the benefits of UV). However, they would want a less intense bulb commensurate with dappled sunlight, and don’t require it as an absolute.
Desert terrariums can be made to look very attractive, but the inherent openness of desert terrain to my eye always seems somehow constricted when replicated in a tank. On the other hand, deep, thick rainforest growth tends to be easy to make aesthetically pleasing in even a small tank.
When setting up a crestie tank, use a tall tank, well planted with either live broad-leafed tropicals or well-made plastic plants. A drip system or small waterfall is entirely appropriate. Always provide a small overhead heat source; even cool creatures need to make temperature choices. Cresties are sexually dimorphic and quite easy to tell apart. As with other geckos, keep no more than one male per colony as, like humans, males are social jerks. And as with humans, females are perfectly reasonable creatures and happy to coexist.
In the wild, the cresties are omnivores, primarily going for insects but also inclined to lap up rotting fruit. In captivity, they will do well on crickets dusted in vitamins and calcium, in combination with pureed sweet fruits like mango, pear and berries. I don’t often use this space to recommend a specific product, but in this case I am making an exception. Repashy Ventures makes a full line of processed foods for various herptiles, but the company got its start by making a crested gecko diet. I have seen cresties that not only have been raised exclusively on this diet, but come from parents and grandparents also raised solely on Repashy diet. As a great cynic with regards to processed foods, I find this truly remarkable.
A Tail of Woe
So, is there anything negative with regards to the crestie? Yes. They lose their tails as easily as many other geckos, but unlike the others, their tails do not regrow. Instead, they get a little stump tail. Such individuals have come to be nicknamed bulldogs, and in my store, we sell them at a slightly reduced price. The good news is that many customers find the nickname itself charming, and thus the stump does not seem to reduce the gecko’s salability at all.
What we have here is the perfect lizard pet: attractive, docile, hardy, easy to keep and adorable. From a sales perspective, it is also a dream. You not only sell all the essential lizard products, but you have the possible add-ons of waterfalls and plants, and a guaranteed return sale in prepared food.
My intuition is that it will be a long, long time before the crested gecko hands over its crown as world’s most popular pet lizard.
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.