Leopard Gecko or Bearded Dragon? Choosing the Best Pet Lizard

Bearded dragon

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by André Karwath

Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons have stellar reputations among lizard enthusiasts. In fact, they come as close to being perfect pets as any reptile can. However, there are major differences in their habits, activity levels and care needs, and it’s important to be aware of these when choosing a pet. When an animal is active, how much its care will cost, the space it needs and other factors will affect your pet-keeping experience and your new lizard’s quality of life. In the following article I’ll compare Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons in all relevant areas. Detailed care information is provided in the articles linked under “Further Reading”; as always, please also post any questions or observations you may have.

Reptile Handling
Most lizards are best considered as “hands-off” pets, but both Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons break this rule. Although individual personalities vary, both adapt well to gentle handling, and are not stressed by human contact.

Activity Levels
Neither is overly active, but both have fascinating behaviors that are well-worth watching for. Bearded Dragons are out and about by day, at which time they bask (their most common “activity”!), feed, and display to tank-mates.

Leopard Geckos, being nocturnal, are ideal for owners who are “night owls”. They will become active in a dimly lit room, or you can equip the terrarium with a black or red reptile night bulb (lizards do not sense the light produced by these bulbs). Leopard Geckos sometimes emerge during the day as well, especially if food is offered.

Life Span
A Leopard Gecko in the St. Louis Zoo’s collection lived for a record 28.6 years. The published longevity for a Bearded Dragon is 15 years, but there are unofficial reports of individuals approaching age 20.

Leopard gecko

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jerome66

Lizard Reproduction
Both species breed reliably, and a wide variety of color morphs are available. Please see the articles linked below for detailed information.

Bearded Dragons require larger terrariums and higher temperatures than do Leopard Geckos, and must be provided with a source of UVB radiation (Leopard Geckos and other nocturnal lizards get along fine without UVB bulbs). Therefore, Leopard Geckos are the less-expensive pet, in terms of supplies and electricity use.

Terrarium Size (single adult)
Leopard Gecko: 10-20 gallon (larger is preferable)
Bearded Dragon: 30 gallon

Leopard Gecko: 72-85 F, with a basking site of 88 F
Bearded Dragon: 75-88 F, with a basking site of 95-110 F

Lizard Diet
Leopard Geckos are carnivorous. Young Bearded Dragons feed largely upon insects, adding plants to the diet as they mature.

Both require highly varied diets comprised of vitamin/mineral supplemented roaches, silkworms, crickets and other invertebrates. Bearded Dragons also need various greens and, perhaps, a high quality commercial food.  Mealworms and crickets alone, even if sprinkled with supplements, are not an adequate diet for either lizard. Please see the articles linked below for more information on diet.

Bearded Dragon

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Frank C. Müller

Health Concerns (Pet and Pet Owner)
Intestinal impactions that result from the ingestion of sand and gravel are perhaps the most commonly-encountered health concern (both species). This can be avoided by the use of cage liners, or by feeding your lizards in large bowls, via tongs, or in a separate, bare-bottomed enclosure. Young lizards, being clumsy hunters, are more likely to swallow substrate than are adults.

Diseases related to poor nutrition are common among lizards maintained on crickets and mealworms alone, and in Bearded Dragons that do not receive adequate UVB exposure (Vitamin D3 is manufactured in the skin, in the presence of UVB). Both species sometimes refuse food in the winter, even if kept warm (please see this article for further information).

If a moist shelter is not available, Leopard Geckos sometimes retain the eyelid lining after shedding. Please see this article.

Atadenovirus infections are becoming increasingly common among Bearded Dragons. Unfortunately, the resulting “Wasting Disease” or “Star Gazing” is incurable. Please see this article for further information.

Salmonella bacteria, commonly present in reptile and amphibian digestive tracts, can cause severe illnesses in people. Handling an animal will not cause an infection, as the bacteria must be ingested. Salmonella infections are easy to avoid via the use of proper hygiene. Please speak with your family doctor concerning details, and feel free to post below if you would like links to useful resources.


Further Reading

Complete Guide to Bearded Dragon Care

Complete Guide to Leopard Gecko Care

Breeding Leopard Geckos



The World’s Most Colorful Snake: 100 Flower Rat Snake Care

Mandarin Ratsnake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Papas2010

Although various American ratsnakes have long been pet trade staples, Asian species have received far less attention from snake enthusiasts.  Among them, however, we find a fantastic diversity of colorful, interesting species, some of which are now being bred in captivity.  My favorite is the magnificent Moellendorff’s Ratsnake or 100 Flower Snake (Orthriophis moellendorffi).  It’s other common names – Red-Headed Ratsnake, Flower Snake and Trinket Snake – are a testament to its striking coloration.  Considered by many to be the most beautiful of all ratsnakes (“designer morphs” included!), Moellendorff’s Ratsnake care is now fairly well-understood…and it may well become the next “break-out” species from Asia!


Please Note: Unfortunately, I had difficulty finding photos that would reproduce well for this article.  The youngster pictured below is not as colorful as are many.  The other ratsnake species pictured here will give you some idea of the beautiful colors and variations exhibited by this fascinating group.  Please click here to view other photos of the 100 Flower Snake.


Juvenile100 Flower Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Etienne Boncourt


The Chinese name for this striking creature – 100 Flower Snake – seems to me to be the most appropriate of all.  A dazzling variety of blotches, which vary in color from rust-red to black, mark the body.  Areas of red or orange usually adorn the head, and re-appear along the lower third of the body.  The jet black eye is encircled by brilliant orange.


Individual 100 Flower Snakes exhibit a mind-boggling array of variations to this basic pattern…even, it seems, within the same geographic area.   In fact, breeders are generally unable to predict what the youngsters will look like!  Adults reach 5-8 feet in length.


Natural History

Field studies are, lacking, but over-collection for the food trade is said to have placed this snake in jeopardy.  As far as is known, the 100 Flower Snake is limited in range to southeastern China and northern Vietnam.


Copper-Headed Ratsnake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by steve kharmawphlang

It is most frequently found in and near limestone caves on rocky hillsides, and among nearby bamboo thickets.  Lightly-wooded fields and riverside brush are also utilized. Hopefully, further studies will shed more light on its range, habits and conservation needs.


Scant published observations indicate that the 100 Flower Snake preys upon ground squirrels, rats, bats and other small mammals, birds and, perhaps, lizards and frogs.


The Terrarium

100 Flower Snakes seem stressed by small enclosures, and should be provided with proportionally larger accommodations than their American counterparts.  While a 55-75 gallon aquarium will suit small individual, larger adults are best provided custom-built cages measuring at least 6 x 4 x 4 feet.  Stout climbing branches should be provided.


Cypress mulch is preferable to newspapers as a substrate.


Heat and Humidity

100 Flower Snakes seem adapted to cool conditions, and fare best at temperatures that are relatively low by snake standards; wild individuals shelter in caves and forage in the early morning and evenings. An ambient temperature of 70-77 F should be established, along with a basking temperature of 78 F; a dip to 68 F at night may be beneficial.


Some keepers indicate that their snakes show a decided preference for subdued lighting.


Shedding difficulties often occur in overly-dry environments.  A humidity level of 50-60% is ideal, but dry basking areas must also be available.  A hygrometer and small reptile mister may be useful in maintaining proper humidity levels. The need for dry and moist areas and a varying temperature gradient argues in favor of providing this species with the largest possible enclosure.


A dry cave or other shelter, and another stocked with moist sphagnum moss, should be provided.



Despite their size, adults should be fed smaller meals than would be offered to similarly-sized individuals of other species.  Although we still have much to learn, it seems that adult rats may cause digestive problems.  Fuzzy rats (“hoppers”), rat pups and pink or fuzzy mice are often favored.  Some individuals prefer chicks, but usually accept chick-scented rodents.



Captive breeding is infrequent but on the rise…this trend will undoubtedly continue as more snake enthusiasts become aware of this beautiful snake.  A 2-3 month cooling off period at 58-62 F seems to stimulate breeding behavior. Clutches generally contain 5-8 eggs, which should be incubated at 80-82 F for 80-90 days.



Individual tolerance of handling varies almost as much as does their color pattern!  As with most snakes, wild-caught animals may remain defensive for quite some time.  It appears that the 100 Flower Snake is a retiring species that prefers to be left alone.  However, captive-bred individuals usually adjust well to careful handling.  As with all snakes, caution must be exercised when they are being fed or handled.



Further Reading


Natural History and Captive Care of the Taiwan Beauty Snake


Keeping Red-Tailed and Jansen’s Ratsnakes

The World’s Most Venomous Snakes: Working with Mambas and King Cobras

Black mamba

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tad Arensmeier

The dangers posed by a specific snake species depends upon a great many factors (please see below).  It is clear, however, that venomous snakes are a serious health concern…according to a recent study, each year’s 4.5 million venomous snakebites result in 100,000 deaths and 250,000 permanent disabilities (figures are approximate, please see the article linked below for details).  Certain large constrictors have also caused fatalities. In the course of field research in Venezuela, I observed a Green Anaconda attack a co-worker in what clearly was a feeding attempt.  Please see “Further Reading”, below, to read about both this incident and a recent study of human predation by Reticulated Pythons.   Today I’ll focus on the 2 most dangerous species that I’ve found most challenging as captives – the world’s largest and Africa’s longest venomous snakes, the King Cobra (Ophiophagus  hannah) and the Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis).


A Note on “The Most Dangerous”

Widespread species that adapt well to human presence, such as Puff Adders, bite far more people than do, for example, sea snakes and others that might have more potent venom, but which rarely encounter humans.  Wild Black Mambas readily colonize farms and villages, benefitting from the increased availability of shelter and food (rodents, nesting birds).  King Cobras, on the other hand, tend to live in more undisturbed habitats.  Venom evolution, a snake’s size, the availability of antivenin, individual sensitivities and a host of other considerations also complicate the issue.


Here I’m mainly considering captive care (in zoos…venomous snakes should never be kept in private collections!).


King Cobra skull

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mokele

Large, Alert, Fast and Smart!

Cobras and mambas are classified in the family Elapidae, which contains 354 members.  Among them we find several species that are considered to be high-strung and aggressive when confronted.  While King Cobras and Black Mambas often retreat if able, encounters in homes, barns or, in my case, zoo exhibits, may lead to attacks.  And the large size attained by each increases both the potential strike range and the amount of venom that may be delivered by a bite.


Another difficulty presented to zookeepers is the fact that cobras and mambas are hard to move via a snake hook.  Incredibly-fast and quick to figure out what’s going on, they more often than not land on the floor when being “hooked”.


For safety’s sake, I try to rely upon hunger and other “hands-off” tricks when relocating these formidable creatures (please see below), but that is not always possible.  While rummaging through a storage area in the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house, I once found a homemade shield used decades ago by keepers entering the King Cobra exhibit.  One keeper in particular was said to become very concerned if the cobras seemed hungry, or their cage needed servicing; armed with his shield, he would enter quite often (the King Cobras under my care moved into their shift cage when I needed to enter…or else they remained hungry!).


“Curious Cobras”

Those who work with King Cobras often describe them as “curious”.  I can’t disagree, although when servicing their exhibits I found this trait to be un-nerving, to say the least!   Actually, all cobra species I’ve cared for exhibited an unusual degree of alertness, and responded immediately to what was going on around them.  For example, both Egyptian and King Cobras, perhaps sensing my footsteps in the service area behind their exhibits, would rear up and face the small sliding window I looked through before opening their exhibit doors.  As I slid back the window’s cover, a cobra was nearly always peering back at me…in a lifetime of working with snakes, I’ve not seen this done by any other species.


King cobra

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Hari Prasad

My most harrowing King Cobra incident involved an escaped individual at an airport.  Fortunately, I went the “brains over brawn” route and emerged unscathed – much to the disappointment of the several young onlookers who expected a battle!  Please see this article for the details.


How Do You Get a Black Mamba into a Pillow Case?

This disturbing question confronted me when I was called upon to ship the Staten Island Zoo’s resident specimen to another institution.  If anything, mambas are faster and harder to deal with than cobras…individuals cornered in homes have quickly caused multiple fatalities.  An adult can deliver 120 mg of venom in a single bite, and the lethal dose is only 10-15 mg, so this is not a creature to be taken lightly.  Again, I shamelessly used under-handed tricks to accomplish my task…please see this article for the details.


King Cobra and Black Mamba Natural History

While much is made of the dangers posed by these snakes, less attention is paid to the details of their lives in the wild.  Mamba and cobra diets, breeding behaviors, threat displays and colonization of human-dominated landscapes are especially fascinating, and quite unique.  I’ve written about their natural behaviors in the articles linked below.



Further Reading

Anaconda Attacks: Notes from the Field

Human Predation by Wild Reticulated Pythons

Venomous Snakebites Worldwide

King Cobra Natural History

Black Mamba Natural History

Amphibians as Pets: Care of Common and Unusual Types of Toads

European Green Toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by H. Krisp

Children the world over are often introduced to amphibians when they come across their first toad.  Far bolder than typical frogs (and much easier to catch!) most take the indignity of capture by grubby little hands in stride, and leave all who encounter them with a favorable impression.  With few exceptions, however, these droll, long-lived amphibians are relatively ignored by pet-keepers and zoos alike.  After a lifetime of working with dozens of species, I find this hard to understand.  Toads of many species (there are almost 600!) take well to captivity, and often become as responsive as do turtles.  Nearly all feed readily from the hand, and they are frequently described as “charming” by owners.  Many are active by day, while others are quick to discard their nocturnal ways.  I still find American Toads and other common species as fascinating as Kihansi Spray Toads (which produce tiny toadlets rather than eggs!), Blomberg’s Toads and the other rarities I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.



Toads and frogs are classified in the order Anura, which contains 6,396 members.  The world’s 588 toad species are placed in the family Bufonidae.  Toad taxonomy is now in a state of flux, so I’ll mainly stick to common names here…please post below if you would like the Latin name for any species.


Asiatic toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia commons by Visviva

Range and Habitat

Toads are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and have adapted to rainforests, deserts, grasslands, meadows, temperate woodlands, cold mountain streams, farms, cloud forests, suburban gardens, city parks, coastal sand dunes and many more.  Despite lacking native species, Australia hosts enormous populations of Marine or Cane Toads.  Released to control cane beetles (a task at which they failed miserably!), Marine Toads now threaten the future of animals ranging from insects to large monitors.


Toad Diversity

The USA’s toads are incredibly diverse.  Included among the 35-40 native species is one of the world’s smallest, the inch-long Oak Toad (one of our regular readers is now attempting to breed them; I’ll post updates).  The massive Marine Toad is also a native, but is limited to the lower reaches of the Rio Grande in extreme southern Texas; the Florida population is introduced.  Sharing the Marine Toad’s Texas range is the fabulously-bizarre Mexican Burrowing Toad (Rhinophryrinus dorsalis).  Other US natives that deserve more attention include the gorgeous desert-dwelling Sonoran Green and Red-Spotted Toads, the minute Narrow-Mouthed Toads and the subterranean, gnome-like Spadefoots.


Narrow Mouthed Toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Eugene van der Pijll

The toad family contains the only live-bearing Anurans (Nectophrynoides and Nimdaphrynoides spp.)   One of these, the Kihansi Spray Toad, was declared extinct in the wild not long ago.  I worked with wild-caught individuals at the Bronx Zoo, and was astonished at the size of the youngsters produced by the females, who themselves did not reach an inch in length!  Happily, they thrived in captivity and have now been re-introduced to the wild; please see the article linked below.


Vying with the 9-inch-long Marine Toad for the title of world’s largest species are the striking Blomberg’s and Smooth-Sided Toads.  Species that “break the mold”, in terms of appearance and behavior, include the Argentine Flame-Bellied Toad, which rivals the colors of any Poison Frog, and the long-limbed Climbing Toad.  I’ve had the good fortune to work with each of these, and many other unusual species; please post below for detailed care info.


The Terrarium

Your toad’s natural history will dictate the type of terrarium it requires; please post below for specific information.  Terrariums for most should have large land areas and a water bowl.



Sphagnum moss or, for planted terrariums, a mix of moss, dead leaves and topsoil, works well for forest and meadow adapted species.  Toads may swallow substrate with their meals, although they rarely launch the suicidal lunges typical to many frogs.  In order to limit the possibility of intestinal blockages gravel should be avoided.  Tong or hand feeding is also useful.


Climbing Toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Daderot


Toads seem not to require UVB radiation, although some keepers believe that low levels may benefit certain diurnal species; the Zoo Med 2.0 UVB Bulb would be a good choice for these.



Temperatures for tropical species should range from 75-82 F.  Toads from temperate regions fare best at 66-74 F.  However, specific needs vary, especially regarding those native to deserts or rainforests; please post any questions below.


A fluorescent light may provide enough heat – if not, try a 25 watt incandescent bulb or ceramic heater; these can dry out the substrate, so additional misting may become necessary.



Humidity needs vary, but even desert dwellers should have access to a moist retreat and easily-exited water bowl.


Water Quality

Toads have porous skin patches on the chest and elsewhere and will, therefore, absorb ammonia (released with their waste products) and other harmful chemicals.  As ammonia is extremely lethal, strict attention must be paid to terrarium and water hygiene.


Chlorine and chloramine must be removed from water used in toad terrariums.  Liquid preparations are simple to use and very effective.



Toads are carnivorous and stimulated to feed by movement.  The one surprising exception is the Marine Toad.  In Costa Rica, I came to know one huge individual that would visit our field station each night.  After pushing open the screen door, she would eat table scraps that had been left for a dog!


A highly-varied diet is essential.  Crickets alone, even if powdered with supplements, are not an adequate diet for any species.


The following should be offered to tiny species such as Narrow-Mouthed Toads and to newly-transformed individuals: fruit flies, 10 day old crickets, springtails, termites, flour beetle grubs, aphids and “field plankton” (insects gathered by sweeping through tall grass with a net).


In addition to crickets, earthworms (one of the best foods for most) roaches, sow bugs, waxworms, butterworms, silkworms, houseflies and other invertebrates should be provided.  Insects should themselves be fed a nutritious diet for 1-3 days before being offered to your pets.  Many will accept canned grasshoppers, snails, and silkworms from tongs.


Please ignore the You Tube videos of Marine Toads consuming mice. Even in rodent-rich habitats, wild Marine Toads feed primarily upon insects.  While a very occasional pink mouse will do no harm, furred rodents should never be offered.


Food should be powdered with Zoo Med ReptiCalcium plus D3 or a similar product.  Vitamin/mineral supplements such as ReptiVite may be used 1-2 times weekly.



Further Reading

American Toad Care & Natural History

Nutritious Diets for Frogs & Toads

Reptile, Amphibian, Scorpion and Tarantula Feeding Tools

t259648Today I’d like to highlight some interesting feeding tools, automatic feeders, live food dispensers and other products designed for herp and invertebrate keepers.  Included are items that can lighten our work load, ensure safety when feeding aggressive creatures, and automatically provide meals in our absence.  I especially favor products that dispense live insects at irregular intervals, and also those which force turtles, newts and aquatic frogs to work for their food.  This concept, known as behavioral enrichment, became standard zoo-practice while I was working at the Bronx Zoo.  In addition to encouraging exercise, such devices add greatly to the range of interesting behaviors we can observe among our pets.


Hanging Mealworm Feeder

The perforated bottom of Zoo Med’s Hanging Mealworm Feeder allows grubs to find their own way into the terrarium.  Mealworms that escape detection will encourage natural hunting behaviors.  Animals of all kinds quickly learn to recognize the feeder…if you remove it when not in use most, will respond right away when it is returned.


t259647I’ve employed similar feeders in zoos for a wide range of creatures.  Zoo Med’s modal should also be useful to those who keep oscars and similar fishes, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, finches, shama thrushes, and other insectivorous pets.


The first worm feeders were designed to provide tubifex worms to tropical fishes.  I still use the same modal I first purchased as a child…and the price hasn’t gone up much!  In addition to being a great fish-feeding tool, Lee’s Four-Way Worm Feeder is perfect for offering blackworms to newts, axolotls, African clawed frogs and small turtles.


Cricket Feeders

Available in 3 sizes, Exo Terra’s Cricket Pen takes much of the hassle out of keeping those pesky but ever-present crickets.  Detachable dispensing tubes, which are used as sheltering sites by crickets, are set into a ventilated, plastic cage.  A flap seals the tubes lower end when it is removed, allowing crickets to be added to terrariums with a tap of the finger.  Cricket food and water receptacles are also included.


Depending upon the species and terrarium set-up, you may also be able to simply place the Cricket Pen into your pet’s tank and let the crickets escape on their own.  Covering the pen with dark paper will keep animals from trying to reach crickets through the plastic walls…you should notice an increase in alertness and foraging behavior if you use it in this way.


Asian Forest Scorpion

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Chris huh

Feeding Tongs

Gone are the days when we had to modify tweezers and cooking utensils for use as herp-feeding tools.  Zoo Med’s 10-inch Stainless Steel Feeding Tongs is perfect for presenting meals to snakes, scorpions, mantids, and tarantulas, and for removing debris from tanks where one’s fingers are best kept out of reach.


As most frogs seem to lack any sort of reasonable control over their feeding lunges, I use Zoo Med’s Plastic Feeding Tongs   when feeding mine (this tendency is not limited to pets – I’ve seen wild American Bullfrogs crash into rocks, and one landed so close to a larger frog that it too wound up as a meal!).  Lizards vary in their feeding responses…over-zealous feeders may injure themselves on metal tongs, while others are not at risk.  You might want to stay with plastic tongs for certain snakes also.


Feeding tongs can also be used with various fishes and birds…or, if you’ve been as lucky as I. with captive short-tailed shrews and least weasels (two of the most insanely-ferocious creatures I’ve worked with!).


Turtle Feeders

The Zoo Med Floating Turtle Feeder is the best behavioral enrichment -type turtle product on the market.  Amazingly simple in design and easy to use, it will keep sliders, musk turtles, map turtles and similar species well-occupied…and their owners very amused!


Exo-Terra’s Automatic Turtle Feeder, similar in design to automatic fish-feeders, is a much-needed addition to the turtle-keeper’s supply kit.


You can read more about these useful turtle-feeders in this article.



Further Reading

Canned Insects and Snails


Collecting Insects for Captive Herps


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