In April 2009, after breeding leopard geckos for 4 seasons, I wrote an article for Gecko Time about breeding leopard geckos on a small scale. Since its publication, the article has consistently been the second or third most read on the site. Now that I ‘ve been breeding geckos at this level for another 3 seasons, I thought I would update my views and advice since new issues have arisen that I didn’t consider earlier in my breeding experience.
Why Breed on a Small Scale?
There are many reasons to practice limited gecko breeding. For some, small scale breeding is the first step in a plan to greatly expand the enterprise in the future. For many, though, small-scale breeding is a permanent choice. Time, space and financial considerations often necessitate limits on gecko collection size and production. Dealing with fewer geckos means that the breeder has a more personal relationship to each gecko. Geckos in smaller collections are more likely to be regarded as pets rather than production components. For those of us who produce geckos that are common to the trade (the original article was written about breeding leopard geckos), the saturation of the market with these species calls for a more judicious approach to how many new geckos to produce for sale.
Issues with Females
As my years of leopard gecko breeding experience have increased, I’ve discovered much about the limits to the number of years a female gecko can reproduce. I generally begin breeding females at the age of a year and weighing at least 50 grams and continue to breed them yearly until they are no longer producing viably. In my experience to date, female leopard geckos are reasonable producers for about 4 years. However, geckos who produce heavily the first year seem to frequently have significantly fewer production seasons.
Here is some data for 2 of my now-retired breeders:
Ruby (DOB 10/10/05)
2006 (bred at end of season): 2 clutches, 3 eggs, 3 hatches
2007 11 clutches, 21 eggs, 12 hatches
2008 9 clutches, 17 eggs, 6 hatches
2009 9 clutches, 17 eggs, 17 hatches
2010 2 clutches, 3 eggs, 0 hatches
2011 3 clutches, 4 eggs, 0 hatches
Safirs (DOB 5/11/08)
2009 13 clutches, 23 eggs, 19 hatches
2010 2 clutches, 3 eggs, 3 hatches
2011 2 clutches, 2 eggs, 0 hatches
Leopard geckos that are declining in production tend to have more single egg clutches, fewer clutches, fewer fertile eggs and more time between clutches.
After 3-4 seasons, the small scale breeder will be faced with an increasing number of female breeders that are ready to retire. What do we do with them? With limited space available, it’s often hard to find the room to keep them. If we have treated our breeders more as pets, it is often hard to simply sell off the ones that no longer produce. In addition, we may want to keep some geckos simply because we like the way they look. We may need to keep some geckos because they have temperaments or medical problems that are not conducive to their sale. This year I will be selling the two geckos described above as retired breeders since I don’t have any particular attachment to them. I have 4 other females who have “retired”. One has an abdominal hernia and, while she is healthy so far (and the risks of surgery outweigh the potential benefits), I don’t feel comfortable passing her on to someone else. One is an enigma, with associated enigma problems, one is very reclusive and would not bring pleasure to anyone as a pet, and one is a snow/fasciolatus cross whose appearance I like. There is no easy solution, and I have found that few people want to discuss this on the various reptile forums where I’ve posed the question.
Issues with Males
Male geckos will likely continue to produce throughout their lifetimes, as long as they’re healthy. If and when a male becomes no longer viable as a breeder, he must be housed alone if he is to remain in the collection (although there are exceptions; see below). A male may need to retire from breeding if he has a tendency toward hemi-penal prolapse, if he turns out to be infertile, if he is passing on genetic problems or if he has general health problems that prevent him from being in peak condition to breed. One of my males, for example, whom I bred for several seasons and subsequently retired, has a tendency to get plugged nostrils and upper respiratory infections, generally does not eat between November and May and has produced several offspring with unusually short snouts and some who have failed to thrive.
Since the necessity to house male geckos individually can put a limit on the number of males a small scale breeder can have, there is also the issue of missing genetic components for some projects. For example, my current population of geckos allows me to create Mack snow albinos but not super snow albinos since I have no male possessing both the snow and the albino traits. As breeding experience and number of years breeding continue to grow, after awhile the breeder may run through all the possible genetic combinations at his or her disposal. This is not necessarily a problem, but can be an issue for breeders constantly in search for the “new and different”.
There are a variety of creative solutions I have come up with to minimize the impact of the issues discussed above. Some of these solutions may not work for those who house their geckos individually; my geckos are housed in small groups of 2-4:
- Creative housing: Currently I have a 26 gallon bow-front tank that houses 3 retired breeders
If there is space for additional enclosure, some retired females can be kept together indefinitely.
Although male retired breeders are generally housed individually, in certain circumstances, a male can be housed year-round with one or more females. In order for this to succeed, the female has to be past ovulation age and the male must be mild-mannered enough not to constantly bother the female(s). I have had one such pair housed together for the past 3 years. The female no longer ovulates and spends nearly all her time in a specific hide that’s difficult for the male to access. The male attempts to mate occasionally during breeding season but is easily dissuaded. It should also be noted, that I have observed in many instances that when a male and female are kept together year-round, the frequency of mating and egg production seems to decline greatly.
- Sales and trade: Much as we may hate to part with a specific gecko, our desires to hold on to the gecko may be in conflict with our desires to continue breeding. We may decide to retire ourselves as gecko breeders in order to keep our pets if there isn’t enough space for the number of geckos we’d need to fulfill both our ambitions. We may regretfully part with a beloved gecko because we are more interested in the breeding aspect. As we know, life requires compromises sometimes. In some cases, it’s possible to sell or give our pet geckos who no longer breed to a friend or a relative so that we can visit it frequently. Trading retired breeders to someone for geckos who are still able to breed may be another option.
- Space out your breeding: geckos don’t need to be bred every year. One strategy to extend the breeding life of a stable population of female geckos is to breed half the geckos each year. Since to an extent it seems that the decline in production of a gecko is due more to the total number of eggs laid rather than to the gecko’s age, theoretically a gecko who is bred every other year could have a breeding “lifespan” twice that of a gecko who is bred every year.
- Breeding loans: If the biggest issue is lack of genetic diversity, it may be possible to arrange a breeding loan with someone else in the same position. One thing to consider in order to accomplish this safely is whether there is a need to quarantine the geckos. If the “loaner” gecko can be acquired a month before the breeding season, it could be quarantined for a month before introduction to its mate. It’s very important for the breeders to have an agreement, preferably in writing, about how the offspring will be divided including both the number and the potential genetic outcomes each owner will receive.
After 7 seasons of breeding I can still say that despite new challenges and issues, gecko breeding continues to be one of my passions, and an unending source of interest and excitement.