Desert terrariums are popularly created to house Leopard geckos. Terrariums are attractive looking and easy to set up. They are popularly made from glass and can be obtained from most pet shops or can be homemade.
A terrarium is a type of vivarium that is used to keep desert animals in. The enclosure can be of any type or size. The correct size terrarium can house one or a couple of Leopard geckos. Other than serving as a housing enclosure, its purpose is often to create an aesthetically pleasing area to view, and will thus have at least one side covered with glass. Creating a savannah or desert-themed environment will not only add environmental enrichment for Leopard geckos, but also stimulate their natural behaviours and make viewing a pleasure.
There are endless possibilities when it comes to creating a Leopard gecko terrarium. After choosing the right enclosure, the ventilation, lighting, substrate, accessories (hide areas and other enclosure furniture) and the heating needs to be selected. Many keepers make their own enclosures and accessories, but commercial containers and accessories are also readily available from online shops (e.g. Amazon.com), pet shops and general hardware stores.
Terrarium types and sizes
The first thing to consider when it comes to making a Leopard gecko terrarium is the type of enclosure and its size. Leopard geckos are ground-dwelling and are not known to climb vertical surfaces. For this reason, flatter, low roofed enclosures with a large floor surface are preferred over taller ones. The floor surface should be large enough to house the respective amount of Leopard geckos comfortably. A single Leopard gecko can be housed in an area with a floor surface as small as 30 x 30 cm / 12 x 12 “, but bigger is better to allow for more enclosure furniture and open spaces. Larger enclosures can also be heated more naturally (see later). One to three Leopard geckos can be housed together in an enclosure with a floor space of (61 x 23 x 33) cm / (24 x 9 x 13) “. The floor space should increase with at least 25% for every Leopard gecko added after that.
Popular terrarium enclosures used to house Leopard geckos include glass tanks, cabinets and large plastic storage containers. Commercial reptile or Leopard gecko terrarium enclosures, sold as ‘vivariums’ or ‘terrariums’, are also available.
Each type of terrarium enclosure has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Glass tanks, mainly purposed for aquariums, are easy to obtain, easy to clean, has multiple open viewable sides and are fairly cheap these days. Because of their abundant availability, glass tanks are probably the most often used enclosure for Leopard geckos. One to three Leopard geckos can be housed together in a 20 gallon / 40 -50 ℓ tank. The lid can either be in the form of a plastic aquarium lid or a slidable screen lid. Because of their ‘openness’, natural light is often enough to be able to view the inside. Although not always a problem, it can be tricky to install electrical wiring (e.g. for heating equipment) and glass tanks are prone to cracking when not handled with care. Ventilation in glass tanks can also be tricky.
Reptile cabinets with glass sliding doors in the front are both attractive looking and easy to set up. Cabinets can be made or ordered in various or custom sizes. Having a strong roof, cabinets can be stacked or items can be placed on the top. Some sort of artificial lighting will often be required to be able to view the inside properly, but the wooden roof and sides make it easy to install lighting, electrical wires and ventilation openings. Non-treated, dry wood can be prone to soaking moisture and unsealed edges and corners are prone to collect insects and dirt.
Leopard gecko breeders often make use of large plastic storage containers. These containers are cheap, readily available and are easy to clean. They can be stacked easily, thus saving space, but their use is limited when it comes to being viewed from the outside. Ventilation holes can be drilled in the lid or sides of the enclosure.
Vivarium and terrarium enclosures are made by companies such as Exo Terra, ZooMed Laboratories, REPTOZOO and many others. Products include “Pal pens™ “and “Desert dens™”. When looking at these types of enclosures, the floor space and height are probably the most important aspects to look at.
A note on ventilation
Something that is often neglected when setting up a Leopard gecko terrarium is the ventilation. What makes things more difficult is that enclosures need to be made escape/predator proof by completely closing it off from the outside. Proper ventilation can be a challenge when containers are stacked or when glass tanks are used.
Being the process of exchanging air between the outside and the inside of an enclosure, ventilation can be achieved by creating openings to allow airflow. Excess heat will also be able to escape through ventilation. More ventilation is often better.
Ventilation can be created in the form of openings on the top and/or the sides of a terrarium enclosure. Air will be able to move more freely in the case where multiple sides are ventilated. Popularly used ventilation methods include the use of screen lids in glass tanks, grills on the sides of cabinets and drilled holes in the lids and/or sides of plastic containers. A good commercial terrarium should have ventilation openings pre-installed.
Being crepuscular and nocturnal, Leopard geckos spend their days hiding while resuming intermitted activity from dusk till dawn. In the case where natural light is not enough, a non-heat transmitting light source (e.g. energy saver light bulbs, LEDs or fluorescent tubes) that will not affect the environmental temperature can be used during the day.
Provided that enough vitamin D3 is supplied, Leopard geckos do not need ultraviolet (UV) lighting of any sort(30). One study found that when UV lighting was supplied that Leopard geckos had increased shedding patterns and suffered from signs consistent with sunburn(30).
Normal, non-UV lighting can be installed on the inside of cabinets, the inside of aquarium lids or placed on top of a screen mesh lid in the form of an overhead lamp. Optionally, some keepers go as far as installing night lighting that would not affect the normal behavioural patterns of Leopard geckos.
The substrate (or bedding) is what is placed on the floor of the enclosure. Although natural substrates tend to be more aesthetically pleasing, their use is often met with ingestion and subsequent impactions and obstructions. Good bedding substrates include newspaper, paper towels, white or brown butcher paper and carpet. Particulate substrates such as sand, fine gravel, wood chips, crushed walnut shells, eggshells, fine grade bark, perlite, corn cob and alfalfa pellets can be ingested and should rather be avoided. Large pieces of driftwood, bark or rocks can be used for hiding and decoration (see below).
Sand is a very popular substrate for Leopard geckos, but should be used with caution or not used at all. If an owner insists on using sand for its natural appeal, coarse grade sands, silica sand and calcium-enriched sands should be avoided. When sand is used as a substrate, stool and activity need to be monitored for signs of sand ingestion.
Suitable substrates for Leopard geckos
Intestinal impactions and obstructions in Leopard geckos
Accessories (aka enclosure furniture) for Leopard geckos include hiding areas, a basking surface, food and water containers and enclosure decoration. Apart from aesthetics, desired properties of accessories include their weight, size and ability to clean. For this reason materials such as resin, plastic and concrete are often used to produce them. The most important accessories for Leopard geckos are a properly set up hide box as a humidifying shelter, additional hiding areas and a water container.
Hiding areas (hides) will be used for sheltering and sleeping, especially during the day. In a Leopard gecko terrarium, natural-looking hide areas can be in the form of custom made decorations and/or commercial hide boxes and caves. In addition to one or more hides, Leopard geckos will also need a humidifying shelter which will aid in the process of skin shedding and in increasing the environmental humidity. Each hiding area should be large enough to simultaneously fit all the Leopard geckos comfortably.
Items such as rocks, pieces of bark, flagstone, etc. are popularly used to make custom, natural-looking hiding areas and basking spots. A good example includes stacking or placing rocks or flagstone to create caves and canopies and places to climb onto. Custom hide decorations can be made to be open on one side so that the inside of the hidden area is more visible for viewing. Plastic plants can also be added.
Although Leopard geckos are considered savannah/desert lizards, a container for water also needs to be supplied. These containers can range from small bowls used for dogs and cats to fancy, decorative commercial containers that mimic rocks or logs.
Even though custom decorations can look more natural and add a lot of entertainment for Leopard geckos, they must be used with caution. Loosely decorated items can fall over and/or allow for areas where a leg or tail can get stuck in. Natural items are also more difficult to clean/disinfect and can offer hiding areas for insects, bacteria and parasites. Silicone glue can be used to anchor pieces together(31).
Unlike cabinets and plastic enclosures, tanks have floors that are made from glass – which can easily crack when heavy objects are placed or dropped onto it. The same goes for unstable furniture that can fall over. To make the floor a little less fragile, layers of newspaper can be used to separate the substrate layer. Deep layered substrates will act as some degree of shock absorber and can be used to hide cables in.
Leopard geckos are ectothermic (relying on external heat sources to keep their body temperature at a suitable level) and poikilothermic (having a variable body temperature). Heating can be supplied using under tank heating such as a commercially available electrical heat mats/pads/strips or electrical overhead heat lamps pointed to a basking area.
Electrical equipment should be situated in such a way to only emit about a third of the enclosure’s floor surface and should be secured. Direct contact with heating equipment should be prevented. Underfloor heating can be placed under the enclosure or below the substrate.
Terrarium enclosures are often heavy and fragile. The surface where it will be situated needs to be strong, secure and able to bear the weight of the terrarium. A well-lit area with a free electrical plug point will be perfect. The bottom of the terrarium can be protected by using styrofoam. The floor space of the terrarium should be smaller than the surface its rest upon.
Creating a natural-looking, desert/savanna-themed terrarium for Leopard geckos is fairly easy and is a great way to make viewing more pleasurable. It also enriches their environment and stimulates their natural behaviours. This article outlined considerations when it comes to creating a Leopard gecko terrarium that includes enclosure types, ventilation, lighting, substrate, enclosure furniture and heating.