NOTE: THESE ARE DELICATE ARBOREAL GECKOS WHICH SHOULD NOT BE HANDLED.
The day geckos of the genus Phelsuma are widely distributed throughout the enormous island of Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius, Réunion, the Seychelles and Aldabra near Sri Lanka. Some species have been introduced to Hawaii, Florida and parts of East Africa. As the name suggests, they are colourful, tropical day-active arboreal geckos, which feed on insects, pollen, nectar and (some) fruit.
Vivariums for day geckos are ideally vertically orientated, but need not be huge – in their natural habitat these geckos stake out and defend small territories where food, especially flowers and the insects they attract, is abundant. They are, however, very active within those territories and mustn’t be kept cramped – 30 x 30 x 45cm (length x width x height) suits smaller species, while larger forms prefer at least 60cm height. These are minimum recommendations – the larger the better.
Because they come from tropical climes, they are adapted to fairly stable day and night temperatures year round, with a wet & dry distinction between the seasons – in general. They typically need warm ambient air temperatures by day with a moderate drop at night (unlike desert species which often require powerful basking sites and big night drops).
Phelsuma are typically heliocentric (sun-seeking) thermoregulators, shuttling from shade into sun to thermoregulate. Light quality is critical to their well-being, therefore, and best provided by good quality metal halide lights mounted in reflectors above the top mesh of the vivarium to create ‘zonal lighting’ (a column of warm, bright light which the Phelsuma can move from shadier areas into). Such lamps also penetrate deep into tall vivaria allowing the animals to use the whole space instead of clustering around a diffused light source, such as a tube, craving light. Zonal lighting in captivity is best provided by full spectrum metal halide lighting mounted in a reflector above the top mesh of the vivarium, providing a deep column of light to the vivarium floor for animals and plants. No thermostat is required for such lights (but a compatible ballast is) and the animals will shuttle in and out of the light as they would in nature. T8 UVB tubes diffuse light and work against this behaviour; they also have comparatively poor light penetration, which can lead to Phelsuma clustering just around the top of the viv craving light. HO T5 fluorescent tube lighting is a good option and longer, higher wattage tubes are an efficient way of providing high quality lighting across a series of enclosures.
It is also possible use a high-UVB compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), mounted in a reflector, alongside a similarly mounted low wattage tungsten or halogen basking spot to create this zonal lighting column effect. I prefer this to commercially available canopies, but these can be used too (though the zonal effect is reduced). You could add a multi-spectrum aquarium tube for the plants, but the hardy varieties mentioned below usually do fine without this. LED lighting is now a popular choice for providing the spectral requirements needed to promote lush plant growth. lt could be argued that the UV and metabolic vitamin requirements can be catered for with just exposure to a halogen spot and food dusting, but best not to risk it – these are, after all, ‘day geckos’ which naturally seek good quality light.
14 hours lights on, 10 hours lights off is the recommended daily light cycle during the breeding season. This can be automated with a light timer. Gradually changing to a 12 hours lights on, 12 hours lights off cycle for a couple of months will halt mating and give breeding females a chance to rest and recuperate. A couple of degrees ambient temperature drop during the rest season, followed by a return to the slightly warmer ambient temperature should trigger mating behaviours as a new season starts.
Heat mats are fine for small tanks, but aren’t very effective at heating the air and day geckos aren’t attracted to them to use as a contact basking source. A low-wattage infrared heater in a reflector above the mesh, controlled by a thermostat, can be used to stabilise the ambient temperature in larger vivaria, but for the most part, a centrally heated room will suffice to hold the night time levels for most species.
Relative humidity (RH) refers to the amount of moisture held in the air at any given temperature in relation to air movement and is best maintained by spraying the viv. Good ventilation is critical to prevent mould and rot. Furnishings should also be rot resistant; fine orchid bark or ‘Eco Earth’ (fine ground powdered coconut bark) are ideal substrates which hold moisture to boost RH, but won’t decay. Willow branches have proved one of the most resistant woods to decay and are much lighter than aquarium ‘bog’ or mopani woods, which can potentially fall and crush geckos. Bamboo, also, is very popular.
Because many Phelsuma need high humidity, glass tanks are best; but don’t sacrifice ventilation, or moulds will quickly form. Two vents at opposite sides (or even better top and bottom) encourage good cross-flow air exchange. Use fly mesh to prevent small species and their food escaping. Sliding glass doors are best avoided for small species and young; they can squeeze between the panes where the glass overlaps and escape. If you do use sliding doors, put self-adhesive draft excluder strip between the panes and use track all the way round the opening so that the glass slides into a seal at each end. Always inspect the inner track before sliding the doors back – the inner groove is a favourite resting place! Lastly, forget fish tanks – they have poor airflow and are very hard to make both easily accessible and escape-proof.
The use of live plants increases the relative air humidity in the vivarium and seems preferable to most species. Sansevieria (‘snake plants’) are a very suitable plant. Bromeliads and ‘pothos’ ivy are ideal for the smaller Phelsuma, Monstera (‘cheese plants’) or banana palms etc for the large. Potted plants make it easier to strip the viv out when cleaning and plants in pots are more easily rotated in and out of the tank to get some ‘rest-time’ in the natural light on a window sill. Again, good light levels are needed for both lizards and plants.
Adults of different species vary in the proportion that crickets make up of their diet, but babies of all species need small insects everyday to meet their growing protein needs. Most adults will do well with crickets twice weekly.
Phelsuma often act as pollinators in the wild, living on trees and plants which provide them with a sources of pollen and nectar. Popular conception is that they eat lots of fruit, but in fact excessive consumption of fructose (fruit sugars) can lead to dangerous build-ups of fatty deposits in the liver. Fresh tropical fruit purees can be offered as part of a varied diet to positive effect, but sparingly (once or twice a week maximum). Watch out for baby foods – they are often full of sugars and starch, which will quickly make your geckos fat. Always choose organic purees and NEVER anything with rice or dairy (the ‘puddings’); milk and starch provide the perfect media for dangerous micro-organisms to quickly flourish in the warmth of the vivarium.
Phelsuma Farm produces our own Day Gecko nectar & pollen diet, ‘Phelsumin’.
Many Phelsuma species breed readily once their environmental requirements are met, especially the ‘beginners’ species like grandis, laticauda and standingi.
Most species are best kept in pairs and monitored for aggression from the male; mating is a passionate process that can sometimes get out of hand for the poor females! A spare viv to give females a seasonal rest from the attentions of her mate (or to rotate two females with a male) is always useful. Some gregarious species, such as klemmeri, can be kept in trios or small ‘harem’ groups around a solitary male – but always watch for squabbles.
Two eggs are usually laid – either ‘glued’ or rested loose, dependent on the species – in a secluded spot in the viv. Bamboo tubes are ideal to encourage spots that are easy to find and access to remove the eggs. Be careful to keep them in the same position when you pick them up. Eggs can be hatched out in an incubator, but are often successfully incubated in the viv. The hatchlings of any eggs you’ve missed should be removed the moment they take you by surprise looking back at you from amongst the leaves of their parent’s tank; the adults often eat their young, and life as a ‘family’ will not be as cute or easy for them as it might seem to you! Noteable exceptions to this are klemmeri and standingi; but babies are still best isolated.
Very small babies start best in jars with micro-fine meshed lids. Sibling pairs can share okay, but (as always) keep an eye on them and a tank spare – one will usually dominate. Dusted fruit flies and micro crickets, calcium, nectar and fruits are required to grow them to maturity (which can happen in some species as quickly as 9 months). High UV exposure is essential and good relative humidity is a must (higher than the adults; they can dry out quickly). Spray twice daily.
Move the babies to ‘fauna boxes’ or small vivs once they (and their food) are too big to get out of the gaps in the vented tops, then on to a place like their parents when fully grown. It is your responsibility to keep accurate genetic / breeding records should you do all this and never to knowingly breed related animals; you could irreparably pollute the small genetic pool in the tiny captive populations of species like klemmeri.
Owing to largely shared habitat requirements, Phelsuma are often mixed with other animals, such as tree frogs and dart frogs. Caution is the watchword here – large day geckos (P.grandis, standingi) will eat smaller frogs and lizards (dart frogs, red-eyes or anolis), whereas large frogs (White’s tree frogs) can and will eat small Phelsuma (laticauda, klemmeri). However, day geckos can mix with species of a corresponding size (especially treefrogs); P.grandis are often seen with White’s, and Berlin zoo mix laticauda with large dart frogs with great success. Phelsuma Farm has kept large display enclosures with cepediana, red-eyed tree frogs and azureus dart frogs all getting along admirably. (However, make sure only captive bred dartfrogs go into a mixed viv; these will have lost their poisonous skin secretions from bacteria present in their wild diet.) Watch out for territoriality between day geckos and other arboreal lizards of a similar size, such as anolis.
Phelsuma species do not generally mix well together – especially males! – and even females will squabble. In almost all cases, day geckos are best kept in pairs in a species vivarium, without interference from other animals.
Lastly, NEVER put two males of the same species together – a fight to the death will ensue. Males will even kill females should they prove incompatible; again caution and close monitoring of their behaviour are advised.
© Phelsuma Farm, 2004; Edited 2017