Three to Get Ready: Stenodactylus

Reptile enthusiasts who are interested in small geckos, will enjoy this installment of Three to Get Ready about the genus Stenodactylus, a tiny gecko originating in North Africa and the Middle East.  As usual, our three experts are responding to the following questions:

1. What species are you keeping?
2. What got you interested in this species and where did you get your first one(s)?
3. How are they set up?  Describe your enclosure
4. What do you find most interesting about them?
5. What do you find to be the biggest challenge?

Stenodactylus stenodactylus, Egypt local
Stenodactylus stenodactylus, Egypt local

 Nick Esposito

In the Stenodactylus genus, I am currently keeping and breeding S. stenodactylus, and I have kept and bred S. petrii. There are quite a few more species in the genus, but these are the two most commonly imported and kept species. Some of you may know S. stenodactylus as S. sthenodactylus, but this is actually a typographical error from when the species was originally described. Common names (which I avoid using for clarity) for geckos in this genus are: Short-fingered gecko, Dune geckos, Sand geckos, none of which is a clear, exclusive description separating this genus from any other. I have been keeping S. stenodactylus, “Steno steno,” on and off for over 10 years, and as one of the first species I kept, my start with them was a comedy of errors, and a checklist of how not to keep something. I originally bought them as “Israeli Dune Geckoes,” from an importer at a local reptile show when I lived in Chicago.  I was keeping mostly snakes or monitors at the time, with a few species of geckos (Pictus, and Viper geckos). I was drawn to their unusual color, shape, and specifically the curve of their snout. They have a very comical face, in a way I had not seen in any other gecko at the time. I was told they could be kept communally, and to keep them very hot, very dry, on play sand, and to feed 3 times a week.  I dutifully did as instructed, and had horrible results.  I lost about two thirds of the geckos in less than a month, and my group of over 20 was now down to 7. Needless to say, I was very discouraged, and wracked my brain and available sources to determine what was wrong. I went through the grouping and found that I had 2.5 animals left. I split them into 1.2 and 1.3 with the logic I could have 2 groups, and hoped for the best.

I am a firm believer that you should try and follow those that know about a species when you’re new to it, but I could tell my 7 animals that were left were dehydrated. I put a moist hide in, that they never used, and I upped the size of the water bowl and how often I filled it. After a while, I noticed they were hiding under the hide, in the moist sand, as well as under terrain on the hot, dry side. Based on all of this, I changed my set up to the one I still use today.

I keep Stenodactylus in cages with lots of floor space, without much concern for height.  Trios were and are kept in a footprint of a 10 gallon long, give or take. I lay slate across about a ?” layer of sand with some moss or soil blended in, and provide large pieces that will hold and dissipate heat evenly. There is always a water bottle cap filled with water on the cool side, and I slightly mist under the slate on the cool side when I fill the water bowl. The hot side is heated with under tank heat tape, so I can maintain a row of cages on one strip. I use a Helix controller to set the temps, and run it at approximately 100 degrees, depending on the time of year.

I still hadn’t had much success with breeding, however. I had a few eggs here and there, but my real success came by accident. At the time, no one I knew did geckos, and Google wasn’t really a thing yet. I had some shoddy books, and intuition to work with. My success with breeding came when I had to move my reptiles to the basement for some repairs on the main floor. It was cool down there, but I knew it would be fine short term. Short term turned into long term, and my animal remained in the basement for a little over a month. Everything seemed fine and normal when I moved them back upstairs, and I thought nothing of it. Imagine my surprise a few months later when I saw the smallest geckos I had ever seen running around one of the cages. I pulled them out and set them up separately, but they were so small, I had no clue what to feed them. Thankfully, I had crickets I knew were breeding in one of my monitor enclosures, so I caught a bunch of pinheads, and that did the trick. Not only do I always keep pinhead-1/8″ crickets around now, I also always cool my animals to get them to breed. That was in the 90’s, and now, at the start of 2013, I still keep and enjoy Stenodactylus. I’ve learned A LOT about keeping geckos/reptiles since then, and Stenodactylus are one of the genera I just can’t seem to quit. I highly recommend them to any and all gecko keepers.

Ethan Allen

Photo by Riverside Reptiles

There are quite a few animals described under the genus Stenodactylus, and a few undescribed ones floating around the hobby as well. Currently I am working with just Stenodactylus sthenodactylus.

I had decided that I wanted to put together a small naturalistic display vivarium with a desert theme, but I hadn’t decided what type of gecko I wanted to have in it. I didn’t have a lot of space, so it needed to be a small species. I also wanted it to be something I hadn’t worked with in the past and something that wasn’t “mainstream”. So I did some research and after some reading and consideration this was the gecko that I chose to work with.

Since they were going to be out in the living area, I wanted a species that would also be somewhat easy to keep and these guys fit that bill. These are  very small geckos, so that would allow me to put several in a small enclosure. They love to dig tunnels so I started out with a substrate of mostly sand with a bit of peat mixed in to help retain moisture just a little better so that the holes and tunnels that they dig won’t collapse quite as easily. To this I added some nice smooth river rocks that were big enough that the geckos couldn’t swallow them. Then came a few pieces of naturally dried out and weathered wood, and some bigger rocks as well. I made a background out of stick-on vinyl tiles that look like slate. Next I added a few bromeliads in order to add a little color and life to the viv. Finally I added the basics of some flex watt heat tape on the bottom and a ceramic heat emitter from above. These were both of course placed on a thermostat as all heating devices should be.

After getting set up, I purchased my geckos from a breeder online that has worked with them for quite some time. They arrived and they were way more fun than I ever expected. Although small, they are very active at night. They are communal and do well in groups. Watching them interact with each other is a blast! They love to chase each other around and they make a fantastic chirping sound. They are also very inquisitive and will come to the front of the enclosure to watch the human activity happening in the room. They absolutely love to dig and spend a lot of time making tunnels under the rocks or pieces of wood. For such a small gecko, they have great big personalities. They also just happen to be about as cute as a gecko can be!

Because of their small size, feeding them can sometimes be a challenge. Babies in particular can be hard to find appropriate feeders for. However, if you breed your own crickets or roaches, you likely have a steady supply of tiny nymphs that will work just fine. Believe it or not, one of the biggest challenges in keeping steno, is finding them! Unfortunately, because they are not a gecko that sells for a lot of money, they are often overlooked in the hobby. And because of that, there simply aren’t a lot of people breeding them. I think that if people knew how much fun they are, they would be a lot more inclined to work with them. I find that their big personalities combined with their fairly easy care and their relatively inexpensive cost make them one of the best “bang for your buck” species in the hobby for both the intermediate as well as more advanced keepers. If you’re looking for something a bit off of the beaten path, and not concerned about trying to make a fortune off of your geckos, I whole heartily suggest finding some of these little geckos to work with.

Jon Boone

At the moment, I’m only keeping Stenodactylus sthenodactylus, although I also keep Crossobamon eversmanni which was historically classified as a Stenodactylus species.  In the past, I’ve kept Stenodactylus:  mauritanica (Egypt), petrii, doriae, grandiceps (Jordan), leptocosymbotus, mauritanicus (Morocco) and arabicus.  I’ve also kept Crossobamon (Stenodactylus) orientalis from Pakistan.

My first Stenodactylus were obtained from an importer in California in 1983 at $25 each, and were S. sthenodactylus.  I kept and eventually produced a few offspring from this group.  However, my interest in Stenodactylus spiked greatly after having the opportunity to travel in North Africa in 1993 when I spent 6 weeks camping with Berber shepherds in the Sahara desert who showed me where and how to hunt Stenodactylus sthenodactylus mauritanicus.

The following Stenodactylus species have been maintained in plastic boxes that measure 12 x 16 x 8 inches high:  sthenodactylus, mauritanica, leptocosymbotus, mauritanicus, and both Crossobamon species.  The substrate is a simple layer of fine sifted sand that is approximately one inch deep.  Plastic plant water catch dishes are inverted with access holes (not much larger than the geckos themselves) and placed on the cool and warm ends of the box. Temperatures of 75 (coolest evening) – 95 (warmest localized spot) F. are maintained during the active breeding season.  A cooling period of 6-8 weeks at 65 – 75 F. should be provided for all animals that are 50% grown or larger.   Providing methods to improve humidity is not important, but can help elicit feeding responses, particularly if  the terrarium is sprayed just prior to their evening emergence.  All animals are fed domestic crickets and all insects are dusted with a 2.5 parts of RepCal (no phosphorous) to 1 part Herptivite by volume. The larger species (doriae and petrii) are maintained in plastic boxes that measure 16 x 24 x 8 inches high, with the same basic provisions as the smaller species.  Stenodactylus arabicus are maintained in smaller plastic boxes that measure 8 x 12 x 4″ high and are kept more humid and with more stable temperatures of 82-88 F., day and night, throughout the active season.

The most interesting aspect of Stenodactylus is the general body structure and eye coloration of these ground dwelling animals from one of the harshest deserts on the planet.  After experiencing them in nature, one of the first things one notices is that they are quite successful in resourcing tiny cracks in the hardened desert floor, where the animals do not necessary inhabit open sand fields.  On the other hand, they tend to shelter in ground crevices around the perimeter of where the soft sand fields abut to hardpan created by
washes, bedrock and occasionally plants.

The smaller Saharan Stenodactylus do not really pose any big challenges in husbandry.  However, some of the smaller species from the Arabian peninsula live in association with specific substrate types (ex. salt pans, coastal desert strips, etc.) and/or exhibit specific diets as food specialists (ex. Stenodactylus arabicus) and can be difficult to maintain over periods of time.  The larger
Stenodactylus (doriae and petrii) might need a greater period of time to adapt to your terrarium and husbandry practices and thereby not produce eggs for you during the first year of keeping.  However, the most important issue for ALL Stenodactylus:  you must cool them for approximately 6-8 weeks.  Furthermore, during the cooling period I feel it is also prudent to separate each adult animal into smaller plastic boxes during the artificial hibernation and bring the adults back together during the onset of the breeding season.

Nick Esposito is That Weird Gecko Guy, both at large and on Facebook . He has been breeding reptiles since 1995, and has focused on geckos for the past decade. He currently lives on the east coast and works with over 30 species of gecko, from genera like Blaesodactylus, Correlophus, Cyrtodactylus, Gehyra, Gekko, Gonatodes, Goniurosaurus, Hemidactylus, Heteronotia, Lepidodactylus, Mniarogekko, Pachydactylus, Paroedura, Phelsuma, Ptychozoon, Rhacodactylus, Rhoptropus, Sphaerodactylus, Stenodactylus, and Tarentola.

Ethan is the owner of Riverside Reptiles and is also the Administrator of the Geckos Unlimited forums. He has over 25 years of hands on experience working with herps of all types since the 1980’s, but has concentrated his efforts mainly on geckos for the past 10 years or so. His preference is working with species that are often overlooked and/or under appreciated in the hobby.

Jon Boone has kept and bred approximately 550 different species of gecko since 1981.  He has also had the fortunate opportunity of finding approximately 150 different species in nature from more than 25 different countries around the world.  Combining field experiences with a captive collection provides him with what he feels are unique perspectives into the lives of the animals that we all keep and study.  Jon might also be one of the only gecko people in the world to have been featured in a People magazine article!  His website also provides the collective community of zoologists, researchers and hobbyists with a vast number of photos of live geckos he has kept and bred over the years.

What do you think?

Written by Aliza

Aliza is a home care speech therapist living in the Boston area. She successfully bred a variety of gecko species between 2005 and 2017. She currently cares for a large number of geckos as well as a few frogs and bearded dragons. Other interests which she pursues in her copious free time include work in ceramics, practicing aikido and surfing the internet.


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  1. I have told that these are difficult to sex. Do the males have visible pores or other indications?
    Do you have any key features to differentiate the species commonly found in the pet market.
    I have three Steno. that I bought several months ago. Two died within a couple weeks. The third has thrived. I am not sure what made the difference, but I did notice that the one that survived had absolutely no interest in crickets or dubia, but loves to eat meal worms and wax worms.

    Thanks so much for the great article!

  2. @Jennifer- These guys are really easy to sex. Males have hemipenal bulges that are usually pretty evident.

    S. sthenodactylus and S. petrii are the only two commonly found in the pet trade. S. sthenodactylus is smaller, while S. petrii is much larger. S. petrii also has a prominent lateral stripe, whereas S. stenodactylus does not.

    Good luck with your Stenos! And just a word of advice- try to get them onto crickets.

    Brilliant article.

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