Three months ago, I wrote an article about constructing living terraria, and I specifically mentioned how ideal these are for Crested Geckos (Rhacodactylus ciliatus). Two months ago, I talked about trends in reptile keeping, and once again mentioned Cresties—this time referring to their status as the "it" pet reptile. So, it seems incumbent upon me to devote a column to these little rascals!
How is it that this little lizard is taking over the entire field of herpetoculture? Frankly, I cannot think of a single negative aspect. They are well on their way to becoming a de rigueur part of the modern home, no less so than refrigerators or indoor plumbing.
This is astonishing, considering that, since shortly after their scientific discovery in 1866, they were considered extinct for nearly 130 years. It wasn’t until 1994 that they were rediscovered and introduced to captivity. They are native to New Caledonia, and, in the wild, they are still considered threatened, due to predation by ants. But in captivity, they have thrived, and are one of those success stories that makes our hobby and business look very good indeed.
The Crested Gecko is a small (6 to 8 in.) lizard with typically velvety skin, and basic colors including tans, browns and blacks. Captive breeding has brought a greater palette to the colors, with rich shades of yellow, orange and red being possible, as well as a creamy white background. They are sometimes flecked with black, which are referred to as "Dalmatian." As pretty as they are in the daytime, they have a surprising tendency to "fire up" at night, and can be absolutely stunning.
They have large, ornately patterned eyes and a ridge of saw-cut scales running from their snouts, over their eyes and halfway down their backs.
They have prehensile tails, which, like those of Leopard Geckos, can be easily dropped. Unfortunately, unlike Leopard Geckos, they are incapable of regrowing them. This leads to tailless specimens, which have come to be nicknamed "bulldogs." Being arboreal, they have the same kind of toe pads as Day Geckos, and can easily climb glass and just about anything else.
As pretty as they are, and as cute as they are, it’s their personality that really makes them winners. They are as docile as Leopard or Fat-Tailed Geckos, but, because they are arboreal, they are prone to leap into open space, trusting that they will land comfortably… somewhere. Thus, they require a little more care in handling, but this skill is easily acquired, and soon both gecko and human will interact as if the relationship is second nature. I always tell new clients to make their hand into a tree: upright, with fingers spread as if they are branches. The gecko will tend to climb the tree, and, once at the top, rest comfortably. Cresties not only tame easily, it seems to not be in the scope of their thought processes to bite. They simply look around, placid and implacable, looking for the next place to land.
Build it Up
I find that one of the most pleasurable aspects of keeping them is designing their habitat. This should be a temperate rainforest denizen, and, as such, a densely-planted cage is desired. The geckos basically want a cage similar to that of dart frogs, but with an emphasis on height. Both Exoterra and Zoo Med make excellent front-opening tanks that work well for these purposes. It is not unthinkable to rig a waterfall into the cage, or, alternately, a misting system.
Cresties require a small warm spot at the top of the cage—easily managed with a nano fixture and low watt spotlight. Surprisingly for a nocturnal animal, they do appreciate a UVB bulb. In the daytime, they can be found sleeping on tree trunks, basking away in the sun and getting their vitamin D while sound asleep. I don’t consider it essential for them, but they certainly breed more readily and probably have longer lives given a UVB light 12 hours per day.
Like most Arboreal Geckos, they are omnivores, with a diet consisting of small arthropods and rotting fruit. Adults do well on medium crickets dusted in a vitamin/calcium mixture. For the fructivore portion of their diet, there are a few options. Some keepers prefer to mash up their own tropical fruits—bananas, papaya, mango, berries and the like, with vitamins and calcium mixed in. Old schoolers like me have a longstanding tradition of using prepared baby foods, but if you do, pay strict attention to the contents. Some of them have a horrifically high refined sugar content that I would not consider feeding them to a lizard, much less a human baby.
Zoo Med has a nice line of canned fruit mash in three flavors, and you can trust them when it comes to the ingredients. But Repashy has upped the game by inventing an all-in-one diet reduced to powder form, which is easily rehydrated and makes the little geckos go bonkers. The stuff is so well done that many breeders use it as an exclusive diet and have raised multiple generations on the stuff. Thus, the need to feed them live crickets has been eliminated, and believe me, this is an incredibly attractive component of the package that appeals to a huge portion of your potential customers.
Cresties are remarkably easy to breed. Females can lay pairs of eggs every four to six weeks, up to eight times a year. Even better, the female only needs to copulate once to produce a season’s worth of eggs. The eggs hatch in about 10 weeks. Females must be allowed a winter cooling to replenish calcium supplies and regain body weight before producing more eggs.
The genus Rhacodactylus has two other species that also have toe-holds in the pet industry, and for those in your customer base who like to stay ahead of the trend, you might also offer Gargoyle Geckos (R. auriculatus)—slightly larger, with different patterns and cranial ornamentation, and a bit pricier. For the big spenders, recommend Giant Geckoes, aka Leachies (R. leachianus), which are like a Crested on steroids. The care is pretty much the same, but you might want to think about a bigger cage. These little monsters get up to 14 in., making them the world’s largest gecko.
So, let’s recap. Crested Geckos are beautiful, easy to handle, durable, a manageable size, have attractive caging and are easy to feed. Not to mention they possess many of the other traits that bring people to reptiles in the first place: mysterious, quiet, hypoallergenic and undemanding. We might just as well give up selling everything else. This is it. The pet of the future is now. PB
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.