Desert terrariums are popularly created to house Leopard geckos. Terrariums are attractive looking and easy to set up. They are popularly made from glass.
Table of contents
Introduction to Leopard gecko terrariums
A terrarium is a type of vivarium that is used to keep desert animals in(46). 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, heating, lighting, substrate and accessories (hide areas and other enclosure furniture) 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.
Leopard gecko 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(50). 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.
The minimum recommended required floor space for Leopard geckos varies amongst authors. Bigger is better. Larger enclosures allow for more enclosure furniture and open spaces and can be heated more naturally (see later).
For single Leopard geckos recommended floor sizes varies between 30 x 30 cm / 12 x 12 ″ and 60 x 60 cm / 2 x 2 ft(31). 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. The final size will be dependant on the type of terrarium used.
Popular terrarium enclosures used to house Leopard geckos include glass tanks, cabinets and large plastic storage containers. Zoos might have large enclosed cement enclosures available in their aquarium or reptile departments. 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.
Wooden 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.
Plastic storage containers
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.
Where physical space is not a problem, e.g. in zoos and reptile parks, large enclosures can be in the form of coated cement enclosures. Cement enclosures can either have a glass front or an open top where viewing can take place.
These huge (sometimes up to 1.5 x 1.5 m / 5 ft) enclosures are perfect for almost any type of decoration, heating and lighting and can easily be turned into beautiful, dynamic Leopard gecko terrariums.
Because there is so much space, one to multiple females can be housed together with or without a male. Cement enclosures for Leopard geckos should be enclosed and not be lit by natural sunlight.
A challenge with cement enclosures can be the isolation from insects such as ants.
A note on ventilation
Something that is often neglected when setting up a Leopard gecko terrarium is ventilation. What makes things more difficult is that enclosures need to be made escape/predator proof by completely closing them 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.
Terrarium heating and lighting
Heating and lighting are grouped together because they are both supplied using electrical devices and, where overhead heating is used (see later), heat bulbs can also serve as light sources ad vice versa.
Used electrical equipment, their wiring, switches and plugs should be inspected and tested by a professional electrician at least twice a year, or it needs to be replaced. Reliable sources should be consulted before modifying electrical equipment, their power plugs or their wiring. Electrical heating and lighting equipment can be connected to electrical timers to control their use better.
In the case where natural light is not enough, a non-heat transmitting light source (e.g. energy saver light bulbs, LEDs, low power [<40 Watt] incandescent bulbs or fluorescent tubes) that will not affect the environmental temperature can be used during the day. In larger enclosures lighting can also be used as heating.
In these cases, lighting/heating is usually supplied using overhead lamps.
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.
Controversy exists over whether Leopard geckos need ultraviolet (UVB) lighting or not(50). While some authors reckon that Leopard geckos do not need UV lighting of any sort as long as enough vitamin D3 is supplied(30), others recommend it, but in low intensities — i.e. 5%(34)(50).
One study found that when UV lighting was supplied that Leopard geckos had increased shedding patterns and suffered from signs consistent with sunburn(30). Although evidence exists that Leopard geckos will benefit from UVB, some authors still do not promote its use(50).
The author of this article also does not promote the use of UVB lighting for Leopard geckos. If UVB lighting is used, keepers must ensure enough hiding and dark areas. The beneficial properties of UVB are lost when it is filtered through glass and plastic.
Being reptile(49), Leopard geckos are ectothermic(68) (relying on external heat sources to keep their body temperature at a suitable level) and poikilothermic(68) (having a variable body temperature). The recommended environmental temperature range for Leopard geckos is 25–30 ºC / 77–86 ºF(23) with a drip of about 8 ºC / 46 ºF in the evenings.
Heating can be supplied using electrical under tank heating such as commercially available heat mats, heat pads, heat strips or overhead heat lamps pointed to a basking area. Heat lamps can contain incandescent or ceramic bulbs. Overhead heating should only be considered in larger enclosures and can double as lighting.
Heat sources are popularly connected to thermostats to control temperatures better. As with UV lighting, incandescent heat sources should not be filtered through glass and plastic, as they can have a magnifying effect that can cause lethal temperatures.
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 paper (unprinted news, brown, butcher, kitchen roll(32)), paper towel, carpet, plastic foam mats, Astroturf, clay mixtures and large pieces of slate rocks and aquarium stones(30). Clay mixtures and slate rocks are natural-looking and can be safely used in Leopard gecko terrariums.
Particulate substrates such as sand, gravel, wood chips, pellets, bark, shells, perlite, corn cob, maize/cornmeal, can be ingested and should rather be avoided.
Large pieces of driftwood, large pieces of 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. There is plenty of literature that suggests that wild Leopard geckos prefer clay and rocky surfaces above sandy ones.
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.
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.
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 a styrofoam layer. The floor space of the terrarium should be smaller than the surface it rests 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.
When it comes to creating Leopard gecko terrariums, the enclosure types, size, ventilation, lighting, substrate, enclosure furniture and heating needs to be considered.