Last updated 27 March 2001

My experiences with and observations of

Fat-tailed geckos

Hemitheconyx caudicinctus


Acquisition
Sexing
Housing (1)
Initial Behavioural Observations and Feeding
Hunger Strike
Force Feeding
Housing (2)
Pairing and Breeding
Jemima and the Gecko Love Triangle
The Odyssey of Mrs Jemooga

General Behavioural Observations
Conclusion
Bibliography

Acquisition

In the course of my reading up on the leopard geckos that my wife wanted to buy in 1996, I bought a couple of books on geckos. Along with the leopard gecko, they described other terrestrial geckos, including the attractive but rather more delicate Fat-Tailed Gecko. These geckos were members of the same subfamily as the leopards but came from West Africa rather than Asia, enjoyed higher humidity and were supposedly more delicate. After we bought our two leopard geckos, I had enough for the time being learning about lizard husbandry, but as I got involved in it, I started thinking about possibly getting other lizards, although I wasn't quite sure at that point which ones.

The first fat-tailed gecko I saw for sale in a pet shop was in our old haunt, Pet World. He was sharing a tank with a leopard gecko, but whereas the leopard was either active or under cover, the fat-tail was neither. He looked rather a lethargic little fellow, somewhat more delicate than his companion, half-laying under a rock with his head and forearms visible. His eyes were rather a lustrous dark colour but his expression was a little glum, if not sad. PetWorld were having a sale at the time, and the deputy manager assured me that leopards and fat-tails could exist quite happily together. So I paid up 15 and brought Jemooga, as my wife and I were to call him, home in a plastic box.

Looking back on it, it was a classic beginner's mistake. You should always quarantine new stock for a start, even if it is of the same species, and having three males of two different species in one tank is asking for trouble. As it was, we lowered Jemooga into Genghis' and Kubla's tank in the evening and watched. The two young male leopards emerged and began to follow him around curiously, one of them even licking him with his tongue presumably to get a better measure of the intruder. It was too much for Jemooga, who retreated under a log at the warm end of the tank and did not emerge again for hours. Quite clearly, even though the two leopard geckos were not attacking him, the whole arrangement was stressing him out. After he refused to eat for a couple of days and we were not sure if he was even drinking, we belatedly realised that this setup was not going to work.


Housing (1)

Having decided to do the right thing and get Jemooga a tank of his own, we found an old 18" x 12" glass aquarium which we cleaned out. We experimented with different substrates from the ones we used for our leopards, trying both pine bark and mulch. The mulch retains the moisture better but makes it easier for prey insects to hide, so we are using chips at the moment, although we may change again. He also got a piece of cork bark which he spent much of his time resting under, and a red light bulb which could keep the vivarium warm without the light disturbing him. We linked this to a thermostat and kept the temperature in the 80s, at least by day. (Few books seem to give you a guide as to what the temperature should drop to by night, but we only reduce it by a few degrees as evenings in West Africa are not likely to be much cooler than the daytime). A heat mat was also provided at one end of the tank, together with a basking rock.


Initial Behavioural Observations and Feeding

Jemooga's general behaviour at this time was generally sedentary compared with his relatives in the tank above. He would spend a lot of time in hiding, being somewhat shy, but would come out occasionally to bask. For one who seemed so lethargic he was capable of sudden and surprising bursts of energy and speed, particularly if startled. Like the leopard geckos, he also proved to be a good and determined climber, being able to scramble up onto his bark or other desired spot quite easily. At this time he was also a good feeder, and the introduction of insects (crickets) into his tank would bring forth a querying snout, followed by a quick run towards the nearest moving object. When he had got within visual range he would straighten his front legs, thus forcing the front of his body up like a man doing press-ups. For a moment he would stare fixedly at the prey, and then as his tail began quivering violently he would suddenly snatch his food up in his jaws and masticate it thoroughly. Sometimes he would close his eyes at the same time, though whether from pleasure or a desire to get it down as quickly as possible I was not sure. Like the leopards, he too would tidily defecate in one corner of the tank


Hunger Strike

Then, one day, I saw him suddenly apparently hesitate at the point of attacking his prey, and ever since we have found him reluctant to eat. At first he refused to take the brown crickets and would only go for waxworms, which he loved. But after a few weeks he seemed to go off these as well, only taking a couple a week if that. Naturally we didn't want him starving himself to death, so we took counsel from books and other reptile keepers. The first thing we tried was grinding up a small amount of B12 (available over the counter from pharmacists, sometimes known as Cytacon) into his drinking water. When this didn't make any noticeable difference I decided it was the lesser of two evils to make him drink a little each night.

Lizards are notoriously stubborn creatures when it comes to refusing what they don't want, and Jemooga was more stubborn than most. In fact, for such a small lizard he was surprisingly truculent, violently twisting his head away, wriggling free of my grasp or simply keeping his jaws firmly clamped shut. I was also nervous of inadvertently hurting him through accidental over-exertion of pressure. In the end I found that the best way to bring him to submission was to clasp him in my fist, not too tightly but with his forearms tucked in so that he could not pull himself free. Then patience was the key, bringing up the small flask of B12-flavoured water gently until he got tired of resisting and would allow some to pass between his lips. The other thing I found helpful was to allow him a bit of climbing time on my body when I first lifted him out of his tank, lest he come to associate being picked up solely with the unpleasant experience of having liquid forced down his throat. Afterwards I would carefully monitor a short time of walking about on the floor. Despite his meagre diet he would show curiosity towards his surrounding, but would adopt the slow methodical gait of a gecko rather than the frenzied flight of a skink.

We went on like this for possibly a few months, but he would still only take the occasional waxworm. At length I decided he needed a visit to our reptile vet. I was trying to put him in his carrying box when I found he was already climbing out over the side with the intent of making for the cover of the furniture. Hastily I grabbed his back leg, at which point he furiously whirled around, leg still anchored between my fingers, and gave one of them such a fierce bite that it bled copiously for about quarter of an hour. Despite their docile appearance, fat-tail geckos can pack a punch. Somewhat miffed by his ingratitude, I packed him up and drove him down to the vet with the help of a friend.

The vet weighed Jemooga, X-rayed him and kept him in for a day or two for observation. At the end of the period he could find nothing wrong with him: X-rays showed no ingested bodies blocking his intestine, and he had taken a couple of waxworms. So the problem remained unresolved. I wondered if it might be psychological, but as he had his own tank and was being kept at the correct temperature I was not sure what could be stressing him. Looking back on it, he was being kept in an old glass aquarium with a secure lid, so perhaps I should have covered two or three sides of the glass with paper to make him feel more secure. So I carried on feeding him waxworms, which he took sporadically, until I became convinced at length that he needed something more nutritional. This is the point where I bit the bullet and reluctantly decided to force-feed.


Force Feeding

Force-feeding a lizard is not difficult, unless the animal is very small. The problem lies in the potential stress that the process can inflict on the subject, and it is certainly not something to be undertaken lightly or readily. Fortunately I had already had practise in restraining Jemooga, so it was now a question of getting a cricket into his jaws. The manuals recommend that for any lizard you gently keep pressing the food item against the side of the mouth until the lizard gives in and opens its jaws. This is easier said than done when you have a live cricket between two fingers of one hand and are trying to restrain a live gecko in the other. It may sound barbarous, and it is not something I would willingly inflict on either the pet or the prey, but such is the ethics of animal husbandry: hard choices sometimes have to be made. The good news is that I don't have to do it every feeding time or even every week, as Jemooga seems able to go without a regular food supply for 10-14 days. While he may not flourish, he does not starve either. The process of feeding him with 2-4 crickets (sometimes with a couple of extra waxworm or crickets if he decides he's hungry) usually takes 10-15 minutes. When I lift him out of his tank I sit down and allow him to walk about on my shirt and arms for a few minutes to get him relaxed. I then pick him up and restrain him carefully, then pick out the first cricket and rub it against the side of his mouth. This is the point at which he is most resistant and he usually tries to twist his head about to evade the prey. At length he usually yields, opens his jaws and bites down hard on the cricket, then thoroughly emaciates it in a few bites before swallowing it. After that the other prey items seem to come easier, although on a reluctant night he may only take one or two. On some occasions he would actually seem quite greedy for the offered items, so maybe he has become used to this method of feeding. While it is not desirable for a lizard to depend upon being fed in this way, it is obviously far better than the alternative, malnutrition and decline.

I should also warn of the dangers of this method: one night Jemooga was in a particularly disgruntled mood and refused to take anything. After much prodding, he suddenly whipped his head round and tore the cricket from my fingers, ripping the surface of my flesh as he did so. As the wound on my finger began to bleed heavily, I was amazed to see him with a piece of skin hanging from his jaws as he devoured the cricket. Considering his size and normally docile disposition, I have had a couple of nasty bites off him.


Housing (2)

In February 1998 I purchased a pair of golden skinks (Mabuya multifasciatus) and thus bought a new wooden vivarium with a sliding glass front for Jemooga so that the skinks could have his glass tank. This was somewhat bigger than his old habitat, about 24" x 16" x 15", which allowed me to place an extra log in for him to bask on. He seemed to get used to this new arrangement fairly quickly.


Pairing and Breeding

In the summer we saw a female fat-tail for sale in one of our favourite pet shops, the Pet Stop at Elmers End. Unlike two other fat-tails (a breeding pair) which were real bruisers (I've never seen a pair so large), this lady was about Jemooga's size, although her tail was considerably larger than his. We decided it would be an idea to try for a breeding pair (as I do with most of my reptiles), and so we purchased her for 35 and placed her in with him (for once overriding the quarantine procedure, although I have found the aforementioned pet shop to be quite good in this area, and she had been kept in isolation). She seemed quite wary when we opened the door and placed her into the tank, and took some time to cautiously tread around exploring her new surroundings. While she was doing so, Jemooga's head emerged from his hollow log and he began to follow her, taking licks at her as he did so in a manner reminiscent of when we had put him in with the leopard geckos. I watched them both to make sure neither would attack the other, but in fact they seemed to accept each other's presence quite quickly. For a while I noticed that Jemooga would sleep outside the log while "Mrs Jemooga" would sleep inside it, but eventually they both somehow managed to squeeze inside it, and this became their normal resting place during the day. At night one or both would come out, and on occasion I saw them laying next to each other. It is gratifying to note that Mrs Jemooga eats very well, much more like the leopard geckos: she will chase any crickets found in the tank and eagerly devour them. I did not actually see mating take place, but I had a suspicion that Mrs Jemooga might be gravid. Sure enough, in the New Year (2000) she laid her first clutch of eggs.


Jemima and the Gecko Love Triangle

Two things happened to upset this domestic arrangement soon afterwards. Firstly, we happened to be browsing in a local pet shop where a friend of ours worked. He showed us a tank that contained but one inhabitant, a female African Fat-Tailed Gecko with her left forelimb missing (it had been amputated after an accident). Our friend said that nobody would buy her in this condition and asked us whether we would therefore like to have her. My wife and I both felt sorry for the gecko so we took her and put her in a Pen Pal tank on a heat mat in the study to acclimatise. In fact she turned out to be surprisingly tough and agile given her disability. Within a while she had climbed onto her hide, and she had no trouble moving to water. Food was a little more difficult as she as yet lacked the agility to chase crickets and, surprisingly enough, did not seem interested in waxworms. This therefore necessitated force-feeding (again), but Jemima, as we named her, did not take lightly to this. While she had a good appetite and would take a few crickets, she soon let me know when she had had enough by jabbing at my hand with her snout and then attempting to bite me. She could certainly look after herself.

At about the same time the normally placid relationship between Jemooga and Mrs Jemooga turned a bit stormy. She had seemed to become rather highly strung since laying her first eggs, and as she proceeded to lay more I noticed that her movements were becoming more abrupt and jerky. At the same time Jemooga's skin also started to show signs of damage, signs that I had seen before when my two male leopard geckos reached maturity and started to fight. The reasonable hypothesis seemed to be that she was turning on him for some reason probably connected with the egg laying. When I was satisfied that Jemima was carrying no sickness or any other contagious problems, I decided the safest course was to move Jemooga in with her and let Mrs Jemooga have the tank to herself until she had finished her egg laying.

The good health of the fat-tails seemed to be indicated by the fact that Jemooga did mate with Jemima and she laid two eggs shortly afterwards, although I was unable to catch them in time. Unfortunately the strain of egg-laying makes considerable demands on a female, and after this Jemima went downhill. Her inability to catch her own prey, plus her resistance to being force-fed and her disinterest in waxworms (which would have at least put some bulk back on her) made it impossible to bring her strength back up. I transferred her to her own tank in an attempt to reduce the stress on her, but sadly she died within a week, having become very thin.


The Odyssey of Mrs Jemooga

What follows may be an indictment of me as a keeper: suffice it to say, I have no idea how (since I am normally paranoid about cage locks and doors being shut), but one day in September 2000 I realised that I had not seen Mrs Jemooga moving about. Suddenly alarmed, I stripped the cage and was annoyed (but not yet panicked) to find that somehow she had escaped.

Now with the best precautions in the world, escapes can and do happen (something to be borne in mind if you even consider keeping venomous species). I had had this scenario before and had a rough idea where (normally) fugitives go to hide when in the study. Therefore I was certain I could find her quite quickly, despite the heavy work entailed in moving or even dismantling furniture. But in fact I spent two days off work practically taking the study apart, but in vain. After an exhausting 48 hours I decided to lay out dishes of water and waxworms in the hope that she would turn up to feed and drink and thus be located. I left them all over the house in case she had managed to get out of the study. She did not turn up, and after a week or so I became sadly convinced that either one of the cats or maybe Digit the monitor lizard had got her.

In March 2001 I was working in the study when I heard Kissa, our female cat, making a lot of scrabbling behind a stereo table cum tank support. What really shocked me into action, however, was the sight of a detached brown concertina-like tail, writhing unnervingly from side to side in slow but deliberate motion, the red on the plane of detachment still obviously fresh. I threw Kissa out of the study and proceeded to pull out the furniture where I had seen the cat scrabbling about. Eventually, after two or three hours, I finally disassembled the bookcase in the corner - one area I really thought I had sealed off from all lizards. Sure enough, on lifting it up I found Mrs Jemooga, tailless but otherwise unscathed.

Upon reflection this was a remarkable achievement. Fat-tail geckos are not arid environment creatures and are not known to have exceptional powers of being able to go without water, and yet this female had survived almost six months on the floor of the study without, apparently, a regular source of water and no food supply other than those crickets which could escape from the food colonies before I could feed them to the lizards. The water aspect was the one which baffled me most, although a couple of possibilities suggest themselves: (a) she aestivated (went into a sort of hibernation caused by dryness or lack of water, or (b) she was able to get at some other source. As the only tank she could have possibly entered during her exile belongs to Digit, who would probably have chased her if not eaten her, I find (b) unlikely. The third possibility is that she lived off the reserves in her tail, but again I wonder if this could have provided the necessary fluid. Also remarkable is the fact that she managed to hide for so long not only from myself but also from the cats (especially Kissa, who is the most frequent visitor to the study) and from Uther the plated lizard and Digit, both of whom are allowed regular outings on the floor, and both of whom are species known to seize smaller lizards.

As soon as I had found Mrs Jemooga and checked her over, I reunited her in a tank with Jemooga. I was wondering how he would react to her after six or seven months' absence, but my question was answered when he mated with her practically within minutes of her return. Since then I have noticed that they actually seem quite contented together, sometimes sharing the recess under the log but at other times sitting separately. Mrs Jemooga's tail began growing back within about 7-10 days and is making good progress, although it will not have the same shape as the original.

This case is all the more interesting as Fat-Tailed Geckos are considered somewhat delicate compared to Leopard Geckos. However, the amazing fact of Mrs Jemooga's survival has made me determined to be more, not less, careful. The last thing I would want is for anyone to think "Well, his gecko survived on the floor for six months, so mine can". Elsewhere on this site I have mentioned how a Golden Skink that escaped died within days. The security of our animals is not just for our own selfish reasons: it is for their own well-being.


General Behavioural Observations

Like leopard geckos, fat-tails are good climbers given their lack of adhesive lamellae. Their claws are very similar to the leopards' and they can climb up onto the top of objects in a very agile manner. They also possess the inquisitive nature of leopard geckos. I have noticed that one or both of the fat-tails will approach the sliding glass panel of their vivarium in the evening and rest their head on the edge of the plastic, looking out of their habitat. If I leave it ajar they sometimes even poke their heads out, although I do not recall having had one of them actually climb out. Similarly, if placed on the floor a fat-tail will cautiously begin to explore his surroundings, and if you place one of them on your body (while sitting down, please!), it will climb about it, not merely looking for a horizontal resting place.

Are they tame lizards? I would say yes, with a qualification. Fat-tails don't welcome the sensation of being handled involuntarily, nor do they like having their heads stroked (unlike, say, a plated lizard or bearded dragon). In fact an attempt at stroking a fat-tail's head is normally met by ducking and then a dignified retreat away from your finger. On the other hand, if you let them come to you, or pick one up and place it in your hand or on your arm, they do not seem too troubled and will either sit or carefully explore their surroundings. Obviously you must be careful not to let them fall, nor so expose them that they could be easily stressed, which is why I don't normally take ours out to show off to visitors. Geckos like their own space, but they are models of calm compared to other lizards of comparable size. Final lesson: if you really want a pet lizard to handle, get a bearded dragon, a plated lizard or a blue-tongued skink.


Bibliography

Care on fat-tail geckos tends to be lumped into leopard gecko manuals. The TFH publication is Leopard Geckos: Identification, Care & Breeding by Ray Hunziker, which also covers some other terrestrial geckos, including some you're never likely to see in the trade, at least in the UK. The Herpetocultural Library volume is by Philippe de Vosjoli, The General Care & Maintenance of Leopard Geckos and African Fat-Tailed Geckos. The old edition covered just these two geckos but goes into more detail on both, which is helpful especially in the case of the somewhat more delicate Fat-Tail. The later (colour) edition has all this plus details on the African Clawed Gecko, Holodactylus (really recommended only for specialists) and the Japanese Gecko, Goniurosaurus. Bartlett and Bartlett have the comprehensive book Geckos in the Barrons series - see the general Lizard Bibliography for details. See also the Index of Gecko Articles for magazine articles on this lizard.



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