Tips for the Naturalistic Look – March 2014

By Jennifer Greene

Often, we get requests on YouTube, Facebook, as well as in our stores and at shows for tips on how to make a nice looking vivarium, terrarium, or even just a simple cage.  When training new staff members, it is often one of the things most asked of more experienced staff – “Why do your cages always look so good?”

Vivarium designed by one of our most experienced cage builders, Jon Blakemore!

Designing a beautiful cage just isn’t something that comes easily to some people.  In fact, for most of us, it wasn’t something we were just born able to do.  Much like any other type of artistic ability, designing nice looking cages is something that you can get better at through lots of practice.

However, if you don’t have the opportunity like we do to build and take down cages every day, I’ll share with you a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years here at LLLReptile.

Tip 1: Put Tall Stuff in Back!

This might seem really, painfully obvious to you at first, but there’s more to this than simply “don’t block your own view”.  Not blocking your view is, of course, the biggest reason not to put tall stuff in the front of the cage, but hopefully you don’t need me to explain that in detail.

However, there is more to it than giving yourself an open view.  Notice it says “Put tall stuff in back!” not “IF you have tall stuff, put it in back”.  You actually WANT taller things in your cage, and especially in the back.  When building cages for climbing species, they’ll need the taller items to climb on and feel at ease, and even when building cages for terrestrial species – give them things to climb on!  That measly little 18″ of cage height is nothing compared to the bushes, rocks, and other terrain irregularities found in the natural habitat of pretty much everyreptile.

More to the point of simply making something look pretty, putting tall things in the back of the cage provides visual interest.  It gives your eyes a direction to follow, and makes the cage look deeper and fuller to have things of differing height.

Note the use of cork hollows and grapewood to use all of the vertical space in this cage.

Tip 2: Slope the bedding so that it is deeper in the back than the front.

This ties in with Tip 1, as it makes it much easier to add taller plants and items in the back snce there is already a bump in the substrate.

Tip 3: Use flat pieces of wood or corkbark to create “corner planters”

This is where you wedge a large, flat piece of wood in the back corner of a cage, fill up the space with your planting material (I prefer coconut fiber), and stick a nice plant back there.  In shorter cages (18″ or less), I’ll use a pothos or similar vine type of plant, as it’ll spill over the wood and grow out in a sort of plant waterfall.

Some types of vines will climb up a textured background, making a great natural curtain that many frog and small lizard species love to hide in.  The cage to the left uses both live plants and coconut hides to provide a pretty and functional environment for dart frogs at the LLLReptile breeding center.

The rocks and coconut hut hide the root base for both plants in the back of the cage.

Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to move things around!

Whenever staff here at LLL build a cage, we move things around pretty constantly.  Any YouTube video we’ve put up on our channel has on average, at least 10 minutes of “I hate this!  It looks awful!  Maybe if I put this here… No, how about here… No, wait, here… No, no, I’m going to put it… Nope, that looks bad too.”

It’s okay to rearrange everything you want to put in the cage at least 5 times.  You might want to rearrange it all a few more times, just in case.  For example, check out this video of me building a Crested Gecko vivarium.  It’s one of the first we ever put up on YouTube of building a vivarium, and I move everything I put in the cage at least twice before settling on where it’s going to go.  And that’s totally fine!  How else will you decide what looks good and what doesn’t?

Tip 5:  Use a nice water bowl

Nothing makes a cage look like junk quite as fast as seeing a flimsy tupperware as the water dish, or a dirty dog bowl.  Pick up a nice corner dish that you can easily clean, or for added coolness, try using a waterfall or bubbling fountain.

Tip 6: MOSS.  Moss EVERYWHERE. 

I am a firm believer in that there is no such thing as too much moss in a cage.  Not only does it help with humidity, but somehow a cage just doesn’t look finished until moss has been added.  Here at LLL, we’ll often keep a big orange bucket full of water and New Zealand Sphagnum Moss so that we can easily add moss to any cage we build.

You can also use green sphagnum moss to create a more natural feel to a cage.

Tip 7: Keep Practicing!

Pretty much the simplest, easiest way to get better at cage building is to keep practicing.  Try new items, move things around, add new plants if you decide you don’t like what you put in there anymore.  Your cage is not set in stone, and it doesn’t have to stay exactly the way you first set it up forever.

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You’d be surprised at what items end up being preferred by your animals.  Try these neat false Mushrooms on Rocks – they’ve got perfect little depressions in them that get small puddles of water.  Dart frogs love sitting in them!

 

Vivarium Humidity – March 2014

By Curtis Pieramico

When setting up a certain cage for different species of animals you have to look at key points in that specific animal’s environment. One way to find these points is to look at the environment in which they come from. We can only try to mimic that environment to the best of our ability, and for a good portion of different species of frogs the best way to mimic this is by building a vivarium. A vivarium is simply described as a naturalistic, self-sustaining environment for your animals to live in. This would include proper lighting, substrate, foliage, moisture and climate. When dealing with the humidity aspect in particular, there are several different ways that will help you all having to do with the idea of a vivarium.

Tropical Vivarium setup for dart frogs

One of the very first steps you go through when building one of these style tanks is the substrate, and in humidity control your substrate will play a big role. A good way to start of is by using a bottom substrate such as Hydroballs or a crushed lava rock. After this layer you usually put a divider such as a mesh or polyfoam followed by the bedding that you are going to plant with. The reason you need these different layers is for drainage of the tank and moisture control with your environment. The simplest way of looking at it is when you plant something in a pot, the pot usually has a little hole on the bottom for the excess water to seep out of it.  This layer of rock or hydroballs is just acting as that drain hole, but without the need for drilling a hole in the bottom of your cage. Without this layer your tank would begin to fill up with water and start to smell very stagnant and gross. Another reason I like to use this layer is because it makes it much easier to regulate how much water you are adding to the environment. If the water hanging down in the Hydroballs is filling up quickly it is a good idea to mist a little less, and if the hydroballs remain dry you can probably mist a little heavier to help with plant growth and humidity. With these layers down you need to put down your substrate and there are a couple different ways of doing this when using live plants in your enclosure.  There are many different substrates from many different companies that you can use for the top layer of your vivarium and much of it just comes down to preference.

A Coco Soft or Eco Earth bedding usually suits the plants well and holds in moisture good but what you can always add on top of this as a little finishing touch is either a live pillow moss or a sphagnum moss. Both of these will help regulate the humidity in your enclosure and make the environment look very appealing as well.

Once you have your cage setup, the plants planted and watered, you have to start thinking of how you want to mist your cage to keep the humidity better regulated for both your plants and animals. This is one of the different aspects of a living vivarium, you are now taking care of both the animals inside the enclosure as well as the enclosure itself.

The two main misting systems are either automatic, or by hand. If you go with an automatic misting system most will have timers that either come with them or can be purchased separately.   This way, your cage is able to be misted at several different times of day instead of just when you are home. The advantage, in my opinion, of using a hand spray bottle or pressure sprayer is that you are watching the environment as you are misting so you are a little more hands-on with the vivarium. Lately, I have just been doing both so I can both watch the environment as well as keep the humidity up at multiple times throughout the day!

A majority of different species of frogs live in either damp environments or very humid environments, so the closer you can get to the climate that they live in, the better. A couple other ways to do this, besides misting the cage, would be to use different humidifiers and water sections in the vivarium. A humidifier in this type of setup is usually a fogger, and specialized versions for terrariums are made by a couple different companies. This you can also keep on a timer, which will pour a light fog into the cage, increasing the moisture and thus the humidity in the environment. The water section I am referring to is very interesting in a vivarium, this is like a built in water bowl for both your animals and to add additional water for your plants. You would incorporate this water section in the stages of putting your layers of bedding in and it can get as intricate as adding a man-made waterfall or feature to the water section.

One of the author’s dart frog tanks filling up with fog.

Everything I’ve said about different humidity techniques are all great ways to make sure you are getting the moisture and humidity that both your plants and animals will need to thrive. The key is to not just add all of the extras and make your cage as moist as it can be, but to find a good balance of both drier and more humid times of day that the plants and animals you have thrive in.

Although frogs and other species do not need to be kept in environments such as these vivariums it just seems to make it both a little more eye catching for everyone, and easier to maintain and keep your animals doing well. The biggest part of these vivariums that makes it a little easier to maintain is that you are not only looking after the animals but the environment as well. The cool part is these two bank off each other left and right making them perfect for each other. The more you water your plants to help them grow, the more humid the environment is for your frogs to help them thrive, and once you have the humidity down in the environment everything will just seem to come second nature.

Understanding Reptile Vision, Part 1: Understanding Sight – October 2013

By Jennifer Greene

Hopefully, you have at least a basic understanding of how sight works.  In case you don’t, simply speaking the way humans perceive the world is through reflected light on objects around us.  For the majority of vertebrates, this is how sight works.  Light from the sun, a light bulb, moonlight, etc is reflected off of objects around us, and our eyes take in that light and send signals up to our brain indicating what it is we’ve seen. There’s different wavelengths of light – which most of you already know.  There’s visible light, which is the colors we see as humans, and then there’s wavelengths like UVA, UVB, UVC, and so on.  There’s also infrared light – which is, essentially, the same as heat.

Infrared, visible light, the UVB spectrum, these are a small portion of the BIG range of wavelengths that the sun and various light/energy sources can emit.  As far as we’re concerned, though, those are the relevant wavelengths for us to pay attention to.

The cells that send the signals up to our brain each fire when they encounter the type of light they’re designed to perceive, so your sight is only as good as the number of cells in your eyes.  And from there, your sight is only as good as the number of cells designed to pick up the various types of light out there.

The common way for vertebrates to see is through the use of two types of sight cells – rods and cones.  Rods simply pick up light, period, and fire when visible light hits them.  Cones pick up different colors of light, and there are various types of cones for the various colors or wavelengths of visible light out there.  In low light situations, rods work best, as they will just fire if there is light – so all of your rod cells are going to work to detect light when there isn’t much there.  Cone cells only fire when they are triggered by the specific type of light they’re designed to pick up – so they are not as effective as rod cells in low light, as there is often not enough reflected light of a specific color to make them fire.

This is extremely simplified; vision and lighting are complicated topics, and if you’d like to research it more, I highly recommend it.

As a result of the way the cells work, it is common and expected for most nocturnal species to have large numbers of rod cells in their eyes, allowing them to pick up even tiny amounts of reflected light at night and giving them excellent night vision.  Some owls, for example, have night vision up to 100 times better than what we can see – and this is due to the large number of rods in their eyes.

When it comes to daytime vision and cone cells, though, that’s where sight can get really interesting.  Different animal groups have different types of cones, and the way the cones work can vary immensely from animal type to animal type.

In mammals, it is common for them to only have 2 types of cones.  They are usually blind to the difference between the colors of red and green, a color range humans can detect because we have 3 types of cones.  Human color detection is better than most mammals, but it can only be called “better” in that range of comparison.  When you start to look at other vertebrates, the limits of our own sight become much more obvious.

Birds and many tropical fish can see into the Ultraviolet, or UV range, giving them the ability to perceive colors we can’t even comprehend.  Can you imagine a new color that has never existed before?  That’s a color that birds and many fish see all the time!

In that same group of exceptional sight, many reptiles have at least 4 types of cone cells, with some having 5.  This means they can perceive color even better than we can in most cases, and for species with the best color perception, they can see a range of colors that even birds and fish can’t.

This is definitely a generalization, and is not meant to imply that reptiles can all see with clarity and distance that we can – but they can perceive a wider range of colors than our senses can, and this should be considered when maintaining captive collections.

Obviously, not all reptiles require full spectrum lighting, or even much in the way of specialized lighting.  Commercialized breeding of several species has shown that specialized lighting is not necessary for the maintenance of some species, and this video and article series is not intended to dispute that.  Rather, this is a look at how reptiles perceive their world, and how we as keepers can better modify our lighting and cage setup to reflect the natural conditions our reptiles are likely to experience.  For the single pet reptile or for dedicated enthusiasts determined to closely replicate nature as best they’re able, information on reptile sight is just one aspect of husbandry to consider.

The Basking Spot: Excavator Clay – July 2013

Excavator Clay

by Jennifer Greene

If you’re like me, you enjoy setting up your animals in naturalistic, beautiful enclosures with plenty of options for them to run, climb, hide, and bask throughout their enclosure.  Creating a naturalistic display is fairly easy with tropical animals, and videos and set ups of tropical displays are common throughout online forums as well as groups on Facebook or google+.  However, it is much harder to find displays of desert vivariums, or cages that are more than just the basics for desert species.  There is a great deal of stigma with using sand and other small, dry, particle substrates, particularly with species considered desert dwellers, such as bearded dragons or leopard geckos. ‘

However, you can still set up a really neat, naturalistic vivarium with considerably reduced risk of substrate ingestion using a clay substrate made by ZooMed.  Excavator Clay is not an ideal substrate for every situation, but when used correctly, it can be used to create beautiful desert landscapes that allow your lizards the ability to burrow and dig without loose substrate everywhere.

Excavator Clay is a clay substrate that hardens once it’s been mixed with water.  You can put a simple base layer down throughout your cage and have a flat, plain, natural looking flooring, or create landscapes and burrows.  I highly recommend Excavator clay for burrow desert species that thrive in extremely low humidity, and/or come from extremely sandy areas. Steppe Runners, Frog Eyed Geckos, Dune Geckos, Berber Skinks, Uromastyx, Collared Lizards, and other similar desert species all work well in cages with Excavator as the base substrate.

You’ll want to prepare to set up the cage at least a week before putting the animal(s) inside – the clay needs a good amount of time to set and dry.  Have plenty of water on hand, and mix it little by little with the clay to create a sandy paste.  Build your landscape with it, having lots of fun as you make a huge mess putting it together. I suggest sloping the clay higher towards the back of the cage to add depth and make the cage look more visually appealing, but you can build whatever shapes you’d like.

Add the start of burrows by either using cardboard tubes or balloons to leave air pockets for your reptiles to find and dig out.

Enclosure for Tibetan Frog Eyed Geckos

Build up your cage and let the clay harden for at least 2 or 3 days.  If you used a lot of water, it may take over a week to fully dry, so plan accordingly if you are waiting to pick up the future inhabitant of the cage!  I like to add a layer of sand mixed with coconut bedding for digging purposes, as the two combined are a much lighter substrate that the animal can easily dig up and move around.  The loose substrate is also easy to clean, and leaves the excavator underneath fresh.  If you do find that your pet has defecated directly on the excavator, a little water will wash off any feces and make it easy for you to pick up the dirty part.

Just because your reptiles are desert dwellers, that doesn’t mean you should neglect to provide them with humid areas while using your clay substrate.  You can put damp moss in some of the burrows you’ve set up, and just keep a few areas moist.  When you provide at least one or two damp burrows/hiding areas, the species you can keep on excavator broadens.  I have successfully raised Leopard Geckos in an excavator/sand/coconut bedding mix, and if you want a nicer cage for your pets than just a glass box with carpet on the bottom – consider using clay!

Two leopard geckos lived in this exact cage as it is for over a year!

Mealworms were offered in a dish next to the water bowl, and there were multiple moist hides.

Again, it is not a substrate that is ideal for every pet and every situation, but when used correctly you can create beautiful, naturalistic desert set ups.  Your desert reptiles will benefit from the ability to burrow and hide in a more natural way, and the reduced amount of loose substrate (due to the clay being hardened) minimizes the risk of substrate ingestion to a negligable worry.

Want to see a video on setting up Excavator Clay?  We have one that you can see here:http://youtu.be/Nzu0P-aPPbw

Reptile Vision: Nocturnal Geckos – November 2013

By Jennifer Greene

Geckos make up an extremely large group of species, the majority of which are nocturnal or at least crepuscular – that is, active at dawn and dusk.  It is worth noting that geckos evolved from diurnal lizards, and initially had the full set of rods and cones that we discussed in last month’s issue of the Times.  However, as time went on and these diurnal lizards were active only during bright daylight hours, their rod cells began to disappear, and eventually the ancestors of geckos lost their rod cells completely.  When these lizards evolved into geckos, they began moving back into nocturnal niches in the environment, and needed to develop better nighttime vision once again.  “In response to the demands of nocturnal vision without rods, the cones of nocturnal geckos have become much larger and more light-sensitive than those of their diurnal relatives” (Roth 2009).

Refresh your memory on the color spectrum and what wavelengths match which colors.

What does that mean?  That means that geckos see at night, but they see in color.  When we see at night, we are seeing in shades of grey, as rod cells simply pick up whether or not light is present, regardless of the color of that light.  Geckos can see color at light levels that equate to dim moonlight – where we would hardly be able to see at all, much less determine color!  There are studies, for example, that show that helmeted geckos can differentiate between the color blue and the color grey at extremely low light levels.  Scientists were able to test this by dusting crickets in powder dyed either blue or grey.  Crickets dyed blue were “tasty”, or had nothing extra added, while crickets dusted in grey powder were “distasteful”, and extra salt was added to the dust.  Very, very quickly, the geckos learned the difference, and chose the blue crickets over grey crickets nearly every time.  (Roth and Kelber, 2004)

In the diagram above, you can see the test used in the study.The crickets were offered to the geckos on forceps, and the ones coated in grey were always salted.  The geckos almost always refused these crickets in favor of the tastier, non-salted blue crickets.

They made the choice of blue crickets independent of the intensity of the grey coloration on the crickets.  These tests were performed at extremely low light levels, comparable to that of a night with no moonlight, and demonstrate that the geckos were capable of color vision.

An interesting point made in the study was that the scientists varied the shades of blue and grey to match in a black and white view (so if the geckos were not using color vision, the crickets would look identical), as well as grey colors that were brighter and darker to cover UV reflection.  Why would they be concerned about UV reflection, you ask?  Another study looking at crepuscular and nocturnal illumination in regards to a particular moth found that there is enough UV reflection at night for nocturnal animals to have UV sensitive vision.  (Johnson, Kelber, et al 2005)   Geckos in particular have eyes sensitive to blue and green, which makes sense when you consider that in most habitats, the wavelengths of light being reflected most fall into that color range.  Most geckos have minimal red light sensing cones, which is what leads to the use of red light bulbs for heating nocturnal reptiles – they can, at best, see minimally when red light is used to illuminate their cage.

Instead of red, the cone cells in gecko eyes see into the UV range – UVA at least, if not into the UVB range.  When testing spectral irradiance, or the radiation of various wavelengths of light off of surfaces, UV was found to be a substantial portion of light being reflected at night.   This is due to the lower amount of visible light making it through our atmosphere, allowing for more UV radiation and non-visible light to make it through, relatively speaking.  While UV is still being reflected, it is in much lower quantities (relative to overall light being reflected) during the day.  I know, I know, it sounds confusing!  During the day, because there is so much light coming through our atmosphere, it filters out most wavelengths, and what ends up making it through is mostly the visible spectrum, with smaller quantities of other wavelengths.  At night, the light being reflected from the moon, as well as starlight, is less intense in visible light.  This allows for a wider range of other wavelengths which may reflect better to make it through our atmosphere, so while there is a smaller amount of light being reflected, a larger portion of that is not visible light, but instead ranging into the infrared and ultraviolet (UV) range.

Comparing Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), Hawkmoths (M. sctellatarum, D. elpenor, H. lineata, H. gallii) and nocturnal geckos (Tarentola chazaliae).

So, back to our friends, the nocturnal geckos.  Aside from the study on helmeted geckos and their ability to differentiate between grey and blue colored crickets, there really isn’t much in the way of studies on their sight.  They are capable of multifocality, or the ability to have multiple focal zones, while interestingly, the day gecko (top row) had only one focal zone.  The varying colors in the diagram below show how much light was passing through different parts of the pupil.  The study noted large variation between individual animals in sight, which raises an interesting question for keepers – do different geckos have varying ability to see?  Do some geckos need glasses?  That’s rhetorical, of course, but it’s an interesting thought that not all geckos see as well as others. See the study in works cited for more details on this particular study on gecko vision. (Roth, Lundstrom, et al 2009)

The limited other studies on nocturnal vision and non-mammalian animals active at night show that with a full moon, the available light spectrum is nearly identical to that of daytime colors.  Naturally, it is not as bright or as intense as midday light levels, but the range of light is similar.  However, on moonless nights, the color range shifts towards the red or infrared end of the spectrum, meaning that things visible during moonless nights would seem to be redder in tone than they would during daylight or a full moon.  But geckos can’t see red, right?  So are they blind on moonless nights?  Not quite – there are other sources of light, such as star light, as well as other reflective surfaces bouncing light off of each other, leaving enough light for the blue and green seeing geckos to still be active.

The diagram above illustrates the relative levels of different wavelengths of light at different times of day – showing that while there are lower amounts of light, the wavelengths available are still similar to that of daytime illumination.  Note the impact that light pollution has on the colors of available light – interesting to consider what our captive geckos may be experiencing with the ranges of light available to them indoors, entirely surrounded by artificial light sources.

In addition, geckos seek out light to thermoregulate, which seems counter-intuitive to what many keepers have observed with their own animals.  Yes, we can keep geckos without visible light – but one study performed on Tokay Geckos demonstrated that using visible light in addition to heat enabled them to more precisely control their body temperatures both during the day as well as night.  (Sievert and Hutchinson, 1988)  The conclusion the researchers came to was that “it appears that G. gecko is using the position of the light source as well as time of day in establishing diel  (24 hour period of time) cycles of temperature selection.”  So while geckos may not actively bask out in the open under bright, white lights, they do utilize the light source as a reference point for seeking out basking areas to reach their preferred body temperature.

Nothing here is intended to drastically change established husbandry practices of reptiles we have been keeping in captivity and breeding successfully for many years.  I do, however, hope that it encourages some thought for naturalistic enclosures, or helps those with difficult species try new things to help their geckos become established.  I feel it also highlights how little we still know about these incredible animals and their natural habitat, especially when compared to other species commonly kept in captivity. When setting up naturalistic displays, I hope you find the information here helpful in setting up basking areas, full spectrum lighting, or even whether you feel those things are needed.  There is still a lot to learn, and next month, we will be examining diurnal basking lizards.

Watch the video here! 

Works Cited/ References

Lina S.V. Roth, Linda Lunstrom, Almut Kelber, Ronald H.H. Kroger, Peter Unsbo (March 30th, 2009).  The pupils and optical systems of gecko eyes.  Journal of VisionVol. 9 no. 3, article 27 .
Retrieved from: http://www-mtl.journalofvision.org/content/9/3/27.full

Almut Kelber and Lina S.V. Roth (March 1st, 2006).  Nocturnal colour vision – not as rare as we might think, The Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 209 
Retrieved from: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/209/5/781.full

Beate Roll (July 2001), Gecko vision – retinal organization, foveae, and implications for binocular vision, Vision Research, Volume 41 Issue 16
Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0042698901000931

Lynnette M. Sievert, Victor H. Hutchinson (Sept. 1988.  Light versus Heat: Thermoregulatory Behavior in a Nocturnal Gecko Lizard (Gekko gecko), Herpetologica, Vol 44 No. 3
Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3892340

Lina S.V. Roth, Almut Kelber (December 2004). Nocturnal color vision in geckos, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, Volume 271
Retrieved from: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/271/Suppl_6/S485.full.pdf+html

Carrie C. Veilleux, Molly E. Cummings (July 30th, 2012).  Nocturnal light environments and species ecology: implications for nocturnal color vision in forests, The Journal of Experimental Biology, Volume 215 
Retrieved from: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/215/23/4085.full

Sonke Johnsen, Almut Kelber, Eric Warrant, Alison M. Sweeney, Edith A. Widder, Raymond L. Lee Jr., Javier Hernandez-Andres (December 20th, 2005).  Crepuscular and nocturnal illumination and its effects on color perception by the nocturnal hawkmoth Deilephila elpenorThe Journal of Experimental Biology, Volume 209
Retrieved from: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/209/5/789.full

Caring for the Israeli Dune Gecko – May 2013

By Tim Novoa

Latin name – Stenodactylus stenodactylus

These interesting little geckos are primarily native to Israel. They are easy to care for in captivity, as long as their needs are met.  Cage requirements revolve around their desert habitat,and I have used Zoo Med ReptiSand with the best success.  I have also tried usingZooMed Excavator Clay, but unfortunately this led to poor breeding success for my geckos.  In my experience, an under tank heating pad is the most suitable method of heating your cage because these are a ground dwelling and burrowing species.  Multiple fake or live succulentswork best for cage decoration.  You can also use cork flats or both fake and real stone slate to provide extra hiding places for your gecko, as well as surfaces for them to burrow under.  Depending on how many geckos you choose to have, a 10 gallon breeder tank will work best.  Or, for more geckos, you may want to consider a slightly larger sized tank.  Breeder tanks are shorter than usual tanks and are primarily used for reptiles that do not require climbing space. I would not recommend housing more than one male  per cage, for they will fight.  One male to two or three females will be the best ratio for maintaining your geckos at home.

Example of a set up for Israeli Dune Geckos

These geckos are completely nocturnal, meaning that they only come out during the night to hunt for food. Because they are desert dwellers, during the day they spend most of their time underground or under rocks avoiding the blistering hot sun.  In your tank at home, you can allow temperatures on the hot side to reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit, as long as the cool side remains below 80.  Night time lows can go down to the mid 60’s-70’s, although remember to leave your heat pad on to keep the sand warm.

Feeding these small geckos is very easy!  In captivity, dune geckos eat primarily small crickets and waxworms.  When feeding crickets or waxworms, make sure you use a high quality reptile calcium and/or multivitamin WITH D3.  If you are feeding every other day, supplements should be used at most twice a week. Very simple. A great treat for the adults are small dubia roaches.

I would not recommend feeding any type of mealworm, as they can be difficult for the geckos to digest.  Baby Stenodactylus will only eat fruit flies, either species that is commonly available – the melanogaster or hydei.  Even the smallest crickets tend to be intimidating for them as hatchlings. To give you a better idea of how big a baby dune gecko is, it’s about half the size of a dime. Very small!!

One awesome fact about Stenodactylus Stenodactylus is that these geckos are one of the only species that can actually lay their eggs in bone dry sand, and have the babies hatch successfully!

An ideal temperature to keep the cage substrate while there are eggs waiting to hatch is between 83-85 degrees.  The ambient air temperature can drop at night, just make sure you keep your heat pad on to ensure the eggs’ survival.

When breeding these geckos, you can go about hatching the eggs in a couple different ways.  You can leave the eggs buried in the sand where the female originally deposited them, and they should hatch. Or, if you choose to remove your eggs from the cage, be very careful not to damage the eggs. The shell is very thin and will crack very easily if squeezed or moved in the wrong way.  The preferred method is to just leave the eggs where the female laid them and instead remove the adult geckos to a separate cage to ensure the newly hatched babies don’t get eaten by the adults. I know from personal experience that the adults will eat their own offspring, so don’t take that risk!

Although cute and small, these geckos are not the best for handling. Because they are so small and shy, if you do handle them, it can cause them significant stress, which could cause serious health issues for your geckos.  I would definitely consider these to be more of a viewing only animal only.

All in all these geckos are a great reptile to add to your collection of herps at home, and I highly recommend picking some up for yourself!

The Language of Love: Breeding Behavior in Reptiles and Amphibians – April 2013

By Erin Lane

Part III: Visual Virtuosos

It is finally that time of year—the days are getting longer, the weather is milder, and your herps are just starting to wake up from brumation.  Spring is in the air, and reptiles and amphibians are responding accordingly.  This is perhaps the most exciting time for reptile and amphibian keepers as it is when many of our pets begin to show the most interesting and diverse behaviors.  For some species, breeding season is well underway.  Over the past couple of months we have discussed how herps use auditory and chemical communication to find and attract mates.  This month we will be wrapping up our talks with perhaps the most evident form of reptile behavior—visual communication.

Visual communication is perhaps one of the most interesting forms as it takes advantage of our own primary sensory system. What makes it particularly enjoyable to watch is that it is an extremely diverse mode, which can range from push ups and head bobs to flashes of intense color.  Previously we discussed how many frogs and toads use auditory communication to attract mates, and that others take advantage of chemical cues to sniff out a good mate.  When it comes to visual communication, lizards reign supreme.

The unique eyes of a young male Jackson’s Chameleon!

The right kind of attention

The way to get attention for most lizards is to be visible to conspecifics (animals of the same species).  Unlike anurans (frogs and toads), very few lizards vocalize, and most that do typically reserve it for when they are threatened.  And, while some lizards also use chemical signals to communicate, these appear to be secondary to visual signals.  For a lizard, it’s all about the show!

Almost every reptile enthusiast can conjure a picture of a lizard doing pushups on a rock, or a bearded dragon head bobbing.  Lizard visual displays are often eye catching and rhythmic in nature.  One problem that lizards run into is one that most small animals have to worry about—when you make yourself visible, you run the risk of predation.  There is often a fine line between being visible enough to attract attention from conspecifics without drawing attention from predators.  In many cases, caution is thrown to the wind in favor of attracting a mate.

An agama in the wild displaying brilliant colors intending to attract a mate!

Peacocks are a perfect example of this phenomenon.  While these birds have been bred in captivity for centuries, their true wild form is not much different from those you might see at a park.  With their overly long tail feathers, bright colors, and larger than life display, they stand out in almost any environment.  In addition, those beautiful tails also make quick movement and flying more cumbersome.  While peafowl may be good enough at escaping a human, they are a much easier target for their wild predators.  However, it is exactly these traits that make males so attractive to females.  A number of studies have shown that females (peahens) are more likely to breed with makes whose trains have certain qualities, such as those that are longer or have more eye spots1.  Sometimes safety is sacrificed in order to gain access to reproductive partners, and in many cases it pays off.  After all, the success of an animal is not measured in its longevity, health, or looks, except how these relate to the number of offspring they produce, that in turn live long enough to reproduce themselves.

Capitalizing on calisthenics

Reptiles are no exception to the rule.  Attracting a mate is of upmost importance, but you still have to be careful about not attracting predators.  One way around this dilemma is to produce signals that are only visible to conspecifics.  For lizards, this usually means signals that are highly visible to other animals on the same horizontal plane, but less visible to aerial predators a primary concern for most small lizards).  The push up is a great example of this.

Many lizards, such as sceloporus species (e.g. fence lizards and spiny lizards), common out here in Southern California, can be seen doing pushup displays on any high point in the terrain (usually a rock or boulder).  The movement is easily seen by us human onlookers, and is also visible to other nearby lizards that are likely keeping an eye on their neighbors.  However, if seen from above, this is not a display that creates a lot of visual commotion.  While movement of any kind is a risk, the type of movement can make all the difference.  A display that is highly visible to conspecifics, but not particularly visible to predators is a great form of communication.

But back to the point—how do visual signals, such as a push up, relate to breeding behavior?  Like the peacock, it’s all about getting attention.  Many signals can communicate the same thing to both sexes, but with very different outcomes.  For example, a male bearded dragon that performs a lot of head bobs may be communicating his dominance, ownership of a territory, his energy reserves, or a combination of all three.  To other males, this may be sign that they should stay away.  After all, if the displaying male is confident enough to display himself prominently, he has likely had to fight for that position, and may be a formidable opponent.  He must also have lots of energy reserves to continually display, meaning that he may also have lots of energy for fighting as well.

Lateral Compression in a Fence Lizard

While a push up might signal health and dominance to an onlooker, this may have a very different effect on females.  To a female, these traits communicate that a particular male has good genes to pass on to his offspring.  And remember—at its most basic level, life is about reproduction.  Signals that show off a male’s ability to survive, thrive, and produce hardy offspring may have the dual purpose of reinforcing a male’s status while also attracting females.

Color me pretty

While displays of physical ability are common forms of communication among lizards, it is perhaps overshadowed by the incredible array of color exhibited by these squamates.

Unlike most mammals, many lizards see in wide range of colors.  As humans, we have three different color receptors in our eyes that through combination (and your brain’s interpretation) give us the standard rainbow colors, and all those in between.  Most other mammals see the world with comparably limited color.  Your dog and cat, for example, can see blue, but lack the receptors to see red and green.  Some animals see in shades of black, white, and gray.  While it is impossible to make a blanket statement about reptile color vision, we can say that some species possess a highly evolved visual system that allows them to see color the same way, and in some cases even better than, the way we humans do.

From the black beard of a bearded dragon to the myriad colors exhibited by chameleons, color display is perhaps visual communication at its most interesting.  Like physical displays, color is usually an excellent communicator of health and good genetics.  More or more vibrant color has been linked to a number of other fitness indicators across different species, including an animal’s size2, fighting ability3, the amount of courtship a male performs4, body condition5, and even parasite load6, 7.  All of these qualities can contribute to a healthy individual that is bothnot worth fighting, and probably worth mating with.  Color is a way to communicate fitness without putting much physical effort into it.

Male Beardie with dark beard

Color is also used to enhance other displays, making them more visible to conspecifics.  Think of a male bearded dragon head bobbing on his perch.  The dark black beard makes that head and the motion more visible, further emphasizing the overall display.  A fence lizard’s defensive and aggressive displays also utilize color and position.  When the body is laterally compressed (sides pressed flat), it emphasizes the blue ventral (tummy) color that gives them the colloquial name of “blue belly” lizard.  Flashing some color when you need to may help dissuade an aggressor.

Although many males exploit color for communication, they are not the only ones.  Females of many species also use color to communicate.  One example is the color changes that some female lizards undergo when gravid.  What is the first sign that a female chameleon is gravid?  Her color changes—and it is not limited to chameleons.  Many female lizards change color to indicate that they are no longer receptive to a male’s advances.  This saves the male wastedtime courting a female he cannot impregnate, and the female is saved the hassle of prolonged male harassment.

In conclusion

Animals have a number of ways that they communicate with one another.  For some, auditory communication is preferred, for others, chemical cues are of upmost importance.  For many lizards, visual communication is perhaps the most widely used.  From pushups to head bobs, flashy agamas to gravid chameleons, visual signals are some of the most interesting.  They can often communicate incredibly important information to conspecifics, sometimes with no immediate effort at all.  So next time your anole flashes his dewlap, your bearded dragon head bobs, or your chameleon changes color, give ‘em a nod back.

REFERENCES
1) Loyau et al. (2005)
2) Vásquez & Pfennig (2007)
3) McElroy et al. (2007)
4) Sorenson & Derrickson (1994)
5) Elder & Friedl (2010)
6) Mougeot et al. (2009)
7) Václav et al. (2007)

10 Questions with Philippe de Vosjoli – December 2012

Philippe de Vosjoli

By Scott Wesley

Philippe de Vosjoli is an innovator in the reptile industry, a highly respected author of most of the main care books used in the industry, a breeder and so much more as we will find out in this interview!

1. We typically start off our interviews with this same general question.  Can you tell us what got you started into reptiles, and what was your first reptile or reptile experience that got you hooked?

 From the time I was very young I always had an attraction to nature. When I was in France, a period where I spent four and half years in a Catholic boarding school, I would stop during my weekend visits to Paris to a little pet store run by a former keeper at the Jardin des Plantes. He had these large mixed species vivaria at the back of his store that housed things like leopard geckos, giant day geckos, flat rock lizards, monkey tree frogs all in the same enclosure. In other tanks he had Malagasy dwarf chameleons, carpet chameleons and other species I can’t remember. Those visits made me realize there’s a wonderful mysterious natural world to be discovered. I was hooked.

2. You wrote most of the original reptile “care” books used by almost every breeder out there today, and care information / research is always changing. Looking back – what were a few things that you maybe had written back in the day that don’t apply today or opinions have since changed on the care, products, etc?

I wouldn’t change much. I think that excess oral vitamin supplementation, particularly vitamin D3, is a problem with many species, such as chameleons, various treefrogs and geckos. I wasn’t as aware of that when I first wrote care books and it took time and experiment to figure that out. I’ve been criticized for advocating feeding any amount of animal protein to green iguanas but I still don’t believe that feeding insects to juveniles and the occasional mouse to adults is harmful. One study showed that in one area adult iguanas were significant predators of juveniles. One of the biggest problems with green iguanas and all larger reptiles is providing enough heat. A proper heat level optimizes metabolic rate which will affect growth, health, and the rate of clearing of uric acid through the kidneys.

3. Personal note from the interviewer. In college – I wrote a paper on the American Federation of Herpetoculturists (AFH) for one of my Poly Sci classes (seriously). Is this something you were glad to part ways with (meaning too much work / not enough reward), or wish it had grown to be the industry leader for lobbying our interests, and have you ever thought about bringing back another industry magazine like The Vivarium?

The AFH and the Vivarium were founded by herpetoculturists whose primary goal was to represent the accomplishments and interests of private hobbyists. It wasn’t a commercial venture and the original founders all worked for free on weekends and in the evenings to get it off the ground. We were the first to publish a nationally distributed color magazine dedicated to the keeping of amphibians and reptiles and tested the grounds for the viability of this kind of publication. We also were involved in fighting unsound restrictive legislative proposals and in developing standards for responsible care. The involvement of large corporations in the pet industry had dramatic effects on the distribution of books and magazines. We were not able to compete against these large entities. I worked part time for free for 13 years as president of the AFH and contributor to the Vivarium and put in tens of thousands of dollars to keep it going. Looking back I’m not sure the effort and the financial and personal costs were worth it. I think Reptile and Herp Nation are doing a good job at filling the herp magazine niche. Starting another herp magazine is out of the question for me.

4. How is the work coming on the New Caledonian Geckos updates – and anything really exciting or new that we can look forward to in these books?

The gargoyle gecko book is now ready to go to press. It should be available at the beginning of 2013. I also have a book co-authored with Frank Fast and Allen Repashy, The Life of Giant Geckos, in the works that focuses on the natural history, social behaviors and herpetoculture of leachianus. I presented some of this information with Allen Repashy on Gecko Symposium at the 2011 National Breeder’s Expo in Daytona, an event hosted by Exo-Terra. The talk can be seen online (http://www.exo-terra.com/en/explore/gecko_symposium_2011.php) but the book contains a wealth of additional information. Chahoua will be the next project we’ll be working on.

5. You are a leader in the captive reptile breeding world. Can you tell us a few of the species that you were the first, or one of the first to work with and breed here in the US?  Also – what species are you most proud of that you were able to produce in captivity?

I bred my first leopard geckos in 1968.  As far as I know I was the first to breed the Malagasy giant water skinks (Amphiglossus waterloti) and reveal they were a species transitional to becoming ovoviviparous. I had bred the Okinawan viper (Ovophis okinavensis) in the 70s, which is another species that is evolving toward being live-bearing. With Bob Mailloux we did several first captive breedings including Chacoan horned frogs, walking frogs (Kassina leonardi, Kassina maculata), Rana ishikawae, Chilean wide mouth frog (Caudiverbera caudiverbera) and more recently Caatinga horned frogs (Ceratophrys joazeirensis). My last cutting edge snake breeding was producing leucistic puff-faced watersnakes (Homalopsis buccata) With Frank Fast we were the first to breed crested geckos, at least in the US. That showed that unlike the museum specimens that all had pointy tail nubs, crested geckos originally hatched with well developed tails.

6. You are writing a novel as well?  Can you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired you here?

My inspiration came in part from a book I was working on with Terence McKenna before his death.  In a computer model based on information shown to him during an experience with hallucinogens in Peru, we reach an end point where life as we have known it is no more.  He speculated over the years what the end point could be and his views changed from being apocalyptic to the creation of a time machine and toward the end, a technological singularity. The singularity is the point where computing entities exceed human intelligence. As a consequence, what they do becomes no longer comprehensible to us. They are as gods. According to theorists the singularity should occur sometime between 2020 and 2030. My novel is set in this time period. There are no herps in the book but bioengineered Australian blue crayfish (a species I work with) play a mind altering role.

7. You have worked with some really amazing reptiles, and some really common ones too (like pacman frogs). What is your favorite reptile/amphibian you are currently working with (either working with new morphs, or just your favorite) and why that one?

That’s a difficult question because there are so many species I like and I don’t rank them in terms of favorites. If I were to pick one species, the giant gecko/leachianus remains the one species that continues to fascinate me and that I plan on studying and keeping until I die. The way I’m wired it’s one species to which I do not habituate. Every day working with them my mind goes “Fantastic! Fantastic!”

8. How did you come up with the name Pachyforms?  What got you into working with them, and writing best selling books about them as well?

As far as the name, having to describe this group of plants as caudiciforms and pachycauls everytime I talked about them was simply too wordy. A popular name for this group was fat plants, which I thought was too crude, so I came up with a more sophisticated version combining pachy ( which means thick) and form. I have always liked unusual animals and plants. Plants that develop unique individual forms and sculptural bodies to me are the supreme forms of plants as art. Like art most of these plants increase in value with age. After seeing people’s collections of specimen plants at shows and in their homes I couldn’t; believe that there was no printed record of these living works of art. I also realized that if people did not focus on their propagation, they would eventually become extinct, not in the wild but as natural works of art that could be experienced in human society. This was the same motivation that drove me to publish the Vivarium.

9. Can you share with us a few other “industry” people that inspired or helped you out back in the day and why/how?

Although I’ve kept and bred many species of snakes, my focus for the last thirty years has been lizards and frogs. Bob Mailloux and the late Bert Langerwerf were significant inspirations. I’ve learned a great deal from their methodologies using outdoor vivaria.  I’ve also worked with Allen Repashy on various projects. His unique and very practical way of looking at problems and developing methods for commercial herpetoculture has influenced how I keep Rhacodactylus. His diet for keeping these geckos has had a major impact on making species considered among the rarest in the trade to becoming among the most popular.

10. Can you tell me what you see as a few positives, and a few negatives in regards to the direction of thereptile industry today and why?

I don’t think the negative problems with the reptile hobby can be attributed to the industry but more to socio-cultural factors. The Internet, the media technologies and social networking are strong attractors that have drawn people toward a more anthropocentric lifestyle and is a challenge for nature oriented hobbies to survive in this new world. I think we need to find ways to integrate the hobby with the new technology. Intermediating the experience of keeping herps by integrating digital cameras and microphones in setups could be a possible course.

I also think it’s time for us to assess the future of various species , decide which ones we want to establish before a variety of factors makes them no longer available. There are so many idiotic wildlife laws (e.g., listing non native species, such as Jamaican Boas and Black Pond Turtles on the Endangered Species Act) and legislation is so influenced by politics and radical animal rights groups that I  have no faith in the people in charge.  Global warming is another factor. If the predictions of global warming and sea rise are correct then many insular species will become extinct in the future. Some species that have temperature dependent sex determination will have such gender skewed populations that they will be at risk of extinction. We need to ask ourselves are there species that are ethnozoologically valuable enough that they deserve preservation, even if it is only as self sustaining populations integrated in human society. I also think we need to create programs to encourage the general public to get involved in keeping threatened species. The general public spends several hundred millions dollars annually to keep common turtles like red-eared sliders as pets. Just think if all that money could be applied to keeping rarer, less disposable species.

Book Review: Leopard Geckos, the Next Generation – October 2012

The Reptile Times

Leopard Geckos: The Next Generations   by Ron Tremper

Book Review by Jennifer Greene

For the serious Leopard Gecko keeper and/or breeder, there is no book that should be considered more essential to their book collection than the first Herpetoculture of Leopard Geckos book put out by Ron Tremper, Phillipe de Vosjoli, and Roger Klingenberg.  This book, Leopard Geckos: The Next Generationis the most current version, with necessary updates to information about morphs and husbandry where needed.   In addition, this most recent version is also available as an e-book/app, which includes any and all updates as they are added.  This review only covers the printed book, and not the e-book.

Leopard Geckos - The Next Generations

This new addition covers all vital information needed to appropriately care for your gecko(s), whether you have one or one hundred of them.  There are short, concise chapters in the front for basic care to get you started, and more in depth chapters further into the book.  There is also a chapter devoted to commercial breeding, and important information to consider when embarking on such an endeavor.

The chapters with the most new information, and the most valuable to the keeper just getting started breeding, are the chapters discussing morphs, genetics, and the genetic makeup of most morphs available on the market today.  It is also interesting to read about where certain mutations came from, who produced them first, and what they bred to create them.  Vitally important is the information about specific morphs – Tremper lists nearly all of the currently available morphs, as well as their method of inheritance.  This information is extremely useful, especially when creating your breeding plans and projects for the next season.  In particular I was happy to read the section describing polygenetic traits, as it was well expressed and should help clear up the confusion I see in many new breeders when they are first learning about the possibility of polygenetic morphs.

Ultimately, if you are new to Leopard Gecko keeping, looking to get into breeding, and do not have the first edition Herpetoculture of Leopard Geckos book, purchase the physical book and read it thoroughly.  You will find the information extremely useful and beneficial!  If you already own the first edition of the book, instead consider the digital version!

Phelsuma standingi: The Standing’s Day Gecko – October 2012

The Reptile Times

Standings Day Geckos

By Jennifer Greene

Phelsuma standingi, or Standing’s Day Geckos, are an often under appreciated member of the Day Gecko family.  Babies have significantly higher contrasting colors than adults, and they generally lack the intense, jewel-like colors of their cousins the Giant Day Geckos or many of the other commonly kept day gecko species.  However, their subtle coloration hides a behaviorally fascinating gecko.

One of the larger Phelsuma species, Standing’s Day Geckos can reach up to 10” in length for large individuals (much of this is due to tail length).  Adult coloration is generally green around the head, fading to blue by the tail, with thin grey banding throughout their body.   They originate from a drier region of Madagascar, and as such can tolerate a wide range of conditions, particularly lower humidity conditions than their brilliantly colored cousins will accept.  They thrive with high basking temperatures, and to see them at their most colorful it is recommended to offer them UVB as well as a bright, white light to bask under.

Standings Day Geckos

The coolest, in my opinion, part about Phelsuma standingi is their social and reproductive behavior.  While they pair off like the rest of the Phelsuma group, the adults often maintain prolonged monogamous pairs, sometimes for life!  While it is not impossible to convince a female to change partners once her original mate is removed, it is extremely difficult, and many females will not accept new mates once they have bonded with a particular male.

Once established, eggs can be left in the cage with the pair of geckos, and they will not harm any of their offspring that hatch within the cage.  Once the juveniles begin to reach sexual maturity, the adults will become aggressive towards them, presumably to drive them off to find their own territories.  That the parents actively avoid trying to injure their offspring is noticeable, for example “If one baby happens to be accidentally seized (e.g. during feeding), it emits a squeaking sound that makes the parent let go instantly!”  (Bruse, Meyer, Schmidt, 2005, p. 95)

As juveniles get older and remain in the same area with their parents, minor squabbles often break out between them as they vie for resources.  Unlike the majority of day gecko species, they have thicker skin than most, and it is resistant to tearing.  Because of this, the scratches and bites that they receive during the minor fighting that breaks out among siblings is not overly detrimental to their health.  They should still be monitored for serious injury, but due to their thicker skin they can withstand the tussling with few problems.

With patience, Standing’s Day Geckos can be taught to accept human interaction, and even tolerate moderate handling.  Their thicker skin means that even an inexperienced keeper is unlikely to harm them as long as they’re gentle; it is still possible to tear their skin, but it takes considerably more force than with other Phelsuma species.