The natural history of Crested Geckos is something of science fiction. As if sucked into a time-warp for a century, crested geckos are the ultimate symbol of defying extinction. The species name has changed from Correlophus ciliatus, to Rhacodactylus ciliatus, then back again to Correlophus. While the naming isn’t all that interesting, the circumstances of its discovery, rediscovery, and captive breeding are somewhat of a textbook miracle.
First discovered and named by French explorer Alphone Guichenot in 1866 after New Caledonia was discovered and named by Thomas Cook (which was then annexed by France in 1853), crested geckos were likely known to locals for many centuries. They were thought to be extinct between then and their re-discovery in 1994, when they were found by chance in the aftermath of a storm – it would seem the time-warp vortex they were sucked into spit them back out, conveniently (as legend goes) onto the window of a facility some German herpetologists were staying! New Caledonia is a strange place – tropical, yet full of pine trees! One island is even called Isle of Pine!
How long Crested Geckos have been around is unknown. Due to their location between Australia and New Zealand, it is thought that they are very old. In New Zealand, there is a living fossil called the Tuatara, Sphenodon punctatus which can live over 100 years old. This is the last remaining species of not only it’s genus, but the entire family and order are extinct completely (Rhynocephalia). 200 million years ago, this order of many reptile-like species filled the niches that modern Squamata reptiles do today. Australia also boasts some of the oldest and most unique types of reptiles on the planet. Of course, New Zealand and New Caledonia drifted off of Gondwana some 80 million years ago, taking with it some unique fauna which evolved and adapted, just as those would have on New Caledonia. It is likely that Crested Geckos are a very, very old species which filled a niche left by an extinct Rhynocephalia after they were all destroyed roughly 200 million years ago after the Permian–Triassic extinction event.
Since 1994, a small breeding group was established and virtually all the crested geckos we know and love today are descendants from that group. They owe their popularity to their ease of care, as well as their color variations. Unlike most reptiles which look like their parents, crested geckos are like a box of chocolates – you really never know what the heck you’re gonna get.
Further expeditions have revealed that their habitat is mostly tropical rain forest. There are three distinct populations of crested geckos: one on the Isle of Pines, and two on Grand Terre. The southeastern rain forests of Grand Terre, the main island of New Caledonia where crested geckos are primarily found, are divided by the highest peak on the island, Mont Paniė (1628 meters above sea level). Crested geckos spend daytime hours resting in thick vegetation near the forest floor, where it is cooler and less sunny. At night they spend much of their time foraging in shrubs and lower portions of the canopy, rarely traveling much higher than 3 meters from the forest floor. Crested geckos are omnivores, feeding primarily on insects, nectar, and fruits, hunting and feeding at night. When mating or fighting, they make a *cluck* sound, distinctly gecko-like (like the infamous Tokay call), but not unlike a chicken. As many keeper knows, crested geckos cannot regrow their tails once lost, and every adult found in the wild is missing its tail. It is believed that their is an advantage to this – because their tail is so highly specialized compared to many reptiles. It is prehensile (it can wrap around objects), and it has a sticky pad at the end just the same as the sticky pads on their feet. Because crested geckos jump around like frogs, it is likely that this action became easier without a tail – possibly even a hindrance – thus explaining the evolutionary advantage to not regenerating the tail as many other geckos do.
Their main risk in the wild is an invasive species of fire ants called the Electric Ant! They attack small animals in great numbers, overwhelming & consuming the victim. With a name like electric ant, it’s not surprising that this insect is a super-villain across the world – it’s been introduced everywhere, and devastates wild insects and small animals, even Galapagos tortoises are affected.
It seems as though the Crested Gecko has enjoyed a timely renaissance, as it now exists in excess within the living rooms and bedrooms of reptile keepers worldwide. In fact, there are some collectors and breeders with over 2,000 adults in one facility. A testament to the power of captive environmentalism. In fact, they have become so ubiquitous in pet stores and collections, that photos of crested geckos in the wild are hard for the mind to accept – it seems as if every photo is staged; its keeper there behind the camera, ready to place the gecko back in its cage once the photo shoot is over.
While their populations begin to suffer in the wild, and they may actually face Extinct In Wild status in the near future…..there are countless average people in checkout lines around the world with jars of babyfood – the person in line behind them may say ‘Aww how old is your little one?’ to which we herpers reply “10 years… she’s on peach banana baby food, Repashy, crickets, and a variety of worms.”
Yes, it’s a weird and wonderful messed-up world.