Crested Gecko Care (Rhacodactylus ciliatus)
Erica Mede, CVT
Photos and edited by Susan Horton, DVM
Select Photos by Melissa Borden
Cresties live around 10-20 years and reach an average length of 7-9 inches long making them a small lizard ideal for apartment living. Crested geckos are excellent climbers due to the lamellae on their toes and the tip of their tail. Lamellae are hair like structures which allows the crestie to “adhere” to nearly any surface including hand of a keeper. Cresteds do not have a fully prehensile tail like a chameleon but they are capable of autonomy (“tail dropping”) much like a leopard gecko, however, there is no regrowth of lost tails. The most regrowth noted on crested gecko tails is a small point affectionately known as a “duck butt” by some keepers. When this species was originally discovered in 1866 it was thought that crested geckos did not have long tails since nearly all the adults in the wild have lost their tails. Like all reptiles, crested geckos have a Jacobson’s organ on the roof of their mouth which accounts for the gecko’s natural behavior of licking the terrain. Crested geckos have an excellent sense of taste which can be frustrating to owners trying to convert their pets to a different diet.
Hatchlings should be fed the powdered diet/baby food/fruit puree every other day and appropriately sized insects once a week. Adults are fed powdered diet/baby food/fruit puree two times a week and insects two times a week. Some breeders feed their crested geckos daily alternating between powdered diets/baby food/fruit puree and insects. The number of insects offered depends on the amount of insects the crested can eat in 10 minutes. It is never recommended to leave insects, especially crickets, unattended in the enclosure of crested geckos, especially hatchlings, as they can inflict serious injury to cresties. When it comes to fruit puree, baby food, and powdered diets do not expect to see a clean plate. These guys will lap it up as they are hungry but do not always finish a full portion. Learn how much the gecko will eat by offering a serving and adjusting the amount based on what is left over or if it is all consumed.
Geckos in general are eager hunters of insects especially crickets and roaches such as Dubias. If it moves, crested will enjoy it! Meal worms can be used but are rather high in fat whereas prey items like roaches or silkworms are higher in protein. Insects, especially cockroaches and crickets should be gut loaded prior to feeding out. Offering these prey items healthy calcium rich greens such as kale and Swiss chard is required for a positive calcium to phosphorous ratio (this prevents and corrects metabolic bone disease).
Powdered diets are commonly sold in pet stores, at reptile shows, and a number are available online. A very popular powdered diet and possibly one of the most balanced diets used by many keepers and breeders is simply called Repashy Crested Gecko Diet and comes in a silver pouch. Powdered diets are mixed with small amounts of water and offered on a plate for ingestion. Some geckos are raised on powdered diets and happily eat the meal whereas those raised on baby food previously can be rather finicky about the change. There are several flavors available for the Repashy diet to help even the pickiest eater convert over.
It is not highly recommended to feed baby food and/or fruit puree as a staple of the crested geckos diet due to the high sugar concentration and unbalanced vitamin and minerals. Peach, guava, banana, and papaya fruit puree or baby food can be offered on a small plate or shallow dish. Never let this food sit longer than 4-6 hours to prevent bacterial growth on the food. Some keepers have been known to mix meat baby food and fruit baby food together to add protein to the meal at a ratio of 1 part meat to 3 parts fruit baby food,
Fruit puree, baby food, and or insects must be dusted with a calcium supplement (one without phosphorous) 3-4 times a week and a multi-vitamin once a week unless a powdered diet is being used. Powdered diets tend to be rich in different vitamins and do not require further supplementation. A finely ground powdered supplement is best as it adheres to insects the best.
One of the reasons crested geckos are gaining such popularity is due to their enclosure size. Hatchlings under four months old can be housed happily in a 10–gallon aquarium. A single adult gecko can be maintained easily in a 15-gallon or 20-gallon aquarium or a similar size enclosure. A 15-gallon aquarium is a great size for a breeding pair. Sweater boxes (transparent plastic storage boxes) with ventilation holes drilled through the size are an excellent substitute for aquariums. Full screen cages are perfect for the necessary ventilation and are relatively light weight and easy to put together. When setting up an enclosure, height is the most critical feature rather than width or depth. Glass aquariums are easily turned on their ends to create a taller enclosure. Similarly, a keeper is looking to create their own cage a single adult can be housed in a constructed 12” long, 12” wide, and 18” high enclosure. A pair or trio can be housed in an 18” long, 18” wide, and 24” high enclosure. Single lizards can be kept but this species seems to fare better when kept in pairs or trios two. Make sure that they are all female or one male and the rest female. Males are extremely territorial and cages that are close to each other should have cardboard or wrapping paper between them to prevent stressful situations. Also, the cresties must be the same size as one another to prevent cannibalism.
There is much debate amongst keepers and veterinary personnel whether nocturnal creatures like the crested gecko require a UVB bulb. Many breeders successfully keep and breed their geckos without the use of a UVB bulb. It is believed that despite their nocturnal habits, cresties in nature would be exposed to some form of filtered UVB from the sun during their resting period. In the wild, crested geckos are also active just before night when there is still sunlight, albeit fading sunlight. The use of a ReptiSun 5.0 UVB bulb could be beneficial and is recommended by Chicago Exotics veterinarians. When positioned over head, no harm will come from the use of a low level UVB bulb in a crested gecko’s enclosure as these creatures do occasionally suffer from metabolic bone disease which is primarily caused by the lack of calcium circulating in the body. Never leave the enclosure near a window. UVB is filtered out through glass and plastic and the heat from the window can prove deadly to crested geckos.
Temperature and Humidity
During the day the temperature in the enclosure should be between 72 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit can stress the body of crested geckos and lead to overheating and eventual death. In most cases, supplemental heating is not needed unless the ambient temperature falls below 72 degrees. Cresties are nocturnal and most do not bask but there have been breeders who mention their gravid females basking. However, offering a warmer end of the cage by utilizing a under tank heating pad attached to the outside of one of the enclosure walls or a ceramic heat emitter can be beneficial.
Ceramic heat emitters are lightless heating devices which can become incredibly heated if not monitored properly. Always make sure that the geckos do not have direct access to heating devices to prevent accidental thermal burns. Regardless of the heating devise used, a thermostat must be utilized to ensure that the temperatures do not over heat the crested gecko. Thermostats are effective in not only maintaining proper husbandry but also may decrease electrical use as well. Generally, it is easier to maintain room temperature and forgo supplemental heat unless necessary due to room changes. It is highly recommended to use two thermometers in the enclosure. If a supplemental heating device is used then one thermometer should be near it while the other one is near the floor of the enclosure. A thermometer can be placed at the higher end of the cage and the other at the lower end of the cage if there is no supplemental heating devices used.
The humidity levels in the enclosure of crested geckos are ideally maintained at 50% during the day and increased to 80% at night as it would in nature. This level of humidity can be achieved using a reptile fogger, humidifier, or even frequent misting of the cage. When misting the cage take care to mist the leaves, the walls (if solid), and the gecko itself as they will lap the dew drops of their skin as well as any surface it collects on. A hygrometer is an instrument similar in design to a thermometer but it measures humidity levels instead of temperatures. The use of this instrument will help monitor the cage and some can be used in conjunction with reptile misters to ensure the humidity is always appropriate. If the humidity is too low, crested geckos will exhibits shedding problems and even dehydration.
Hiding places are necessary for crested geckos to feel secure. Hidings spots, or “hides”, serve as an escape from perceived threats as well as offer a place for the gecko to sleep during the night that simulates their natural sleep spots of hollowed out trees. PVC pipes and paper towel rolls make excellent and inexpensive hides for cresties. A great product to use in an enclosure for hides is cork bark which comes in a half log or flat shape. Cork bark is very resistant to rot making it ideal in a high humidity environment that crested geckos inhabit. Branches for climbing can be drift wood and have a hollow in them also for sleeping quarters.
Plants whether fake or real are essential for crested geckos to feel secure and offer enrichment as well. Real plants should be non-toxic and potted. It is possible to set up a vivarium with the plants growing from the substrate but it makes cleaning much more difficult. Natural vivariums have the benefit of being beautiful and enriching for the crested gecko. A drainage layer is necessary and is generally made of gravel. Natural plants help keep the humidity higher naturally whereas fake plants are much easier to clean if they are soiled and require no special care at all. Birds nest fern, staghorn fern, and dwarf tree fern are commonly used live plants in natural enclosures. Fake plants can be purchased from pet stores, craft stores, and even the local dollar store. With a little ingenuity and creativity keepers can create beautiful fake vivariums.
A dish of clean water should be offered daily. Some crested geckos will readily drink form dishes while others will lap the dew off of leaves and enclosure walls. A shallow water dish will also help to increase the humidity in the enclosure. It is very important that the dish be shallow! These are not lizards that swim.
The older a crested gecko is, the easier it is to definitely determine the sex of the gecko. Males develop a large bulge under the vent on the tail. This bulge is called a hemipenal bulge. Generally, the earliest most people can sex crested geckos is six months of age although some breeders can sex with fair certainty as early as four or five months old. The hemipenal bulge of males is usually wider than the tail base.
Copulation occurs at night generally. The male will subdue the female by holding her neck in his mouth and may bite hard enough to leave marks. These marks are generally minor and removed with the next shedding cycle. Females lay two eggs every three weeks during breeding.
A plastic lidded container with an access hole and several ventilation holes is ideal for nest boxes and allows the crested gecko to feel secure during egg laying. Vermiculite or sphagnum moss is used as substrates in the nesting boxes to promote nest digging and decrease stress on the female by offering a natural feeling medium. The vermiculite should be medium grade and mixed one part water to two parts vermiculite by weight. Properly mixed substrate will clump when squeezed together without water dripping out of it. This should be a few inches deep to allow digging. If sphagnum moss is preferred, the moss should be soaked in water until completely saturated and excess removed by squeezing. Lightly pack this substrate a few inches deep. Incubation is between 75 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit for 60-120 days. It is recommended to transfer the eggs, being incredibly careful not to alter the eggs position, to a Gladware or Ziploc container with vermiculite and holes drilled in the top for ventilation.
Grooming and Handling
Crested geckos new to a collection typically require a few days to acclimate before handling is attempted. This acclimation period also helps to preserve the tail which may be dropped during handling if the gecko perceives itself to be in danger. Generally, crested geckos will tolerate handling for around 15-20 minutes a day when they are fully acclimated.
Like most geckos, crested geckos do not require any form of grooming although occasional help with a particularly difficult shed may be needed but not often.
Resources and Suggested Reading
Crested Geckos: A Complete Guide to Rhacodactylus, Adam Black
Crested Gecko in Captivity, Robbie Hamper
Geckos: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual, RD Bartlett, Patricia Bartlett
Geckos of Australia, Friedrich Henkel
Lizards Volume 1, Manfred Rogner
Keeping and Breeding Lizards, Chris Mattison
Manual of Exotic Pet Practice, Mark Mitchell and Thomas N.Tully Jr.
Windy City Reptile Group www.windycityreptile.com
If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.