“This is Captain Kirk,” professor Ian Bricknell said as he lifted the gecko from his enclosure.
Twisting in Bricknell’s hand, the lizard gripped with his wide, flat toes and began crawling up the professor’s arm. The lizard measured about 10 inches from head to tail, and down each side ran a row of spines.
The crested gecko is one of the best pets for people looking to get into reptiles, Bricknell said. They’re easy to handle. They don’t require special lighting. And they eat fruit-based smoothies not live insects.
A professor of aquaculture at the University of Maine in Orono, Bricknell keeps and breeds geckos as a hobby. In his basement, also known as “the gecko room,” are dozens of terrariums filled with the lizards, which come in all shapes in sizes. At any one time, he’s breeding between 15 and 20 species.
“I usually hatch a couple hundred a year. It’s quite a lot actually,” Bricknell said, as if just realizing the magnitude of his lizard operation. “Mainly I trade them with other breeders across the country.”
“We’re all looking to breed them, so we don’t take them from the wild,” he added. “That’s one reason herpetological societies and [reptile] expos are so important — it gives you an opportunity to swap or buy species you want to work with.”
Bricknell attends the annual Maine Herpetological Society Reptile Expo, which this year is being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in Portland. There he sets up a “Dr. B’s Geckos” table, mingles with fellow reptile enthusiasts and talks about some of his favorite creatures.
“Geckos are a very widely dispersed and highly evolved group of reptiles,” Bricknell said. “Every continent has geckos apart from Antarctica.”
As for variety — there are about 1,500 species of geckos, and they vary greatly in appearance, diet, habitat requirements and even temperament. And because each species of gecko is so different, it’s important for prospective gecko owners to do their research and pick the best species for them.
While some gecko species don’t need special lighting or temperature control in their terrariums, others do. Gecko diets can vary greatly, from live insects to salads and special powdered drinks.
It’s important not to simply select a gecko based on its color or pattern. Though their beauty is one thing that makes them an attractive pet, selecting a lizard based solely on its looks may come back to bite you — literally.
“The tokay gecko, which is one of the world’s most beautiful geckos, is turquoise with red dots — and it’s like a tiger chewing a wasp with its personality,” he said. “Its bite will make you bleed.”
On the other hand, Bricknell has found the New Caledonian giant gecko — the largest gecko in the world — to be quite docile and friendly. Costing about $1,000 per baby, this lizard can weigh between 8 to 10 ounces and hails from New Caledonia, an archipelago in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Bricknell owns three breeding pairs of these giant geckos, and he often uses them for educational demonstrations because they’re so good natured.
But even among species, geckos have different personalities, Bricknell said. They also have different food preferences, right down to what flavor fruit smoothie they like best. Some like papaya, Bricknell said. Others prefer watermelon or apricot.
“It’s bizarre,” he said.
As Bricknell spoke, Captain Kirk snaked out his tongue and reached around his face to swipe over one of his large, sand-colored eyes. One distinctive characteristic of geckos is that they don’t have eyelids, so they use their long tongues to wash dust and debris from their eyes.
Another interesting thing about geckos is that they use their long tails for signaling and communicating, and when threatened, they wag their tail from side to side to entice predators to latch on. Then, once captured, geckos can shed their tails and escape. And while most geckos can then grow back their tails, crested geckos like Captain Kirk cannot. In fact, for a long time, people thought crested lizards were simply tailless because they are so often seen without tails in the wild.
“People say geckos are boring,” Bricknell said. “But with 1,500 species, they’re a really interesting group of pets. I mean, if you want something that’s unusual and fascinating, then I find these guys are amazing.”
Another thing to consider when selecting a gecko pet is its activity level. While some are slow and easy to handle, others are born to run.
“Day geckos are fast. I do keep those, but I spend all the time chasing them around my reptile room every time I have to open their cages,” Bricknell said. “They’re just like Grease Lightning.”
And lastly, geckos vary drastically in life spans. While some only live for a few years, others can outlast the family dog.
The crested gecko, for instance, has been known to live more than 20 years in captivity. So Captain Kirk, who Bricknell raised from the egg and is currently about five years old, will be around for years to come.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.