Geckos make excellent pets, especially for those only just beginning their foray into reptile husbandry. They are not expensive, don’t need a very large tank, and are quite easy to take care of. If you are thinking of buying a gecko as a pet, or know of someone who owns one, you might have heard or read that geckos change color. Is it true? Can geckos really change color, or are people simply getting them confused with chameleons?
Many species of geckos are capable of changing color. They are even able to camouflage themselves without seeing the color of their surroundings, and studies have even demonstrated they are able to match their surroundings when blind-folded.
If you’re wondering how and why they do it, how long it takes, and which species to buy if you want a color-changing gecko, read on as I discuss it all in detail below.
How Do Geckos Change Color?
Geckos are, essentially, small lizards. The major trait that sets them apart from other lizards is their ability to vocalize (make chirping or clicking sounds) as they interact with each other.
A very famous study, conducted by Domenico Fulgione, investigated exactly how geckos change color and the results were more surprising than you may think. [Source]
He took several random Moorish geckos, blindfolded them, and placed them on various dark surfaces. In less than an hour, the geckos had changed from their usual beige coloration to colors that matched the surfaces on which they were placed.
Fulgione later covered the geckos’ torsos and repeated the experiment. In this case, none of the geckos were able to change color despite being able to see.
It turned out geckos don’t use their eyes to camouflage at all! They use light-sensitive receptors on the bottom of their torsos. These light receptors, usually only found in animals’ eyes, allow the geckos to change color to exactly the shade below them making their camouflaging techniques one-of-a-kind.
The actual color change occurs when cells across their bodies containing different pigments either contract or expand, which is why many geckos seem to be able to change color incredibly fast.
Why Do Geckos Change Color?
There are a variety of reasons why geckos change color, but the common factor is they all stem from their survival instinct.
Geckos are nocturnal creatures and spend their days lounging on tree branches and large leaves. Since those are sleeping spots that make them easy pickings for birds and other predators, they camouflage themselves while they nap. If they can’t be spotted, they can’t be eaten.
The second most common reason for their color-changing tactics is for better hunting. Small insects such as moths, or even other lizards, are unable to see the geckos as they blend into their surroundings, and unwittingly fall prey to the camouflaged dinner-seekers.
Geckos change color to improve their chances of survival, unlike the reasons why chameleons change color, which we will discuss further down.
Can All Geckos Change Color?
There are over 1,600 different species of geckos. Although most of these will change color at some point in their lives due to age, where their colors fade or shedding where they may turn greyish for a few days, not all gecko species can change color on command.
It is very difficult to give an approximation of the types of gecko species that can change color due to the sheer number of different species in existence, but it is estimated only a relatively small fraction of the 1,600 total are able to change the color of their skins on a whim.
Which Species of Geckos Can Change Color?
Despite not having a precise answer to the questions ‘How many species of geckos can change color?’, there are some well known types that may even be available at your local zoo, pet shop, or reptile breeder.
Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica)
Also known as the common wall gecko, it is native to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and some parts of Europe.
They change color mostly to blend in with their surroundings, but also in reaction to an increase or decrease in light.
Crested Gecko (Correlophus ciliatus)
Crested geckos are currently classified as vulnerable animals, having been thought to be extinct until 1994.
Crested geckos all change their color during their lifetimes, but they are also able to do so much faster for various reasons.
- Feeling stressed or angry – this will result in their colors becoming more pronounced
- High temperatures – this too will result in the gecko’s colors becoming darker
- Aleeping – while resting the crested gecko will become darker in color to blend in with its environment
African Fat-Tailed Gecko (Hemitheconyx caudicinctus)
Native to West Africa, this terrestrial gecko has the ability to change its color, although not of its own accord.
In most cases, geckos will undergo color changes either due to a change in light intensity or due to a change in mood, similar to the Crested Geckos.
Gargoyle Gecko (Rhacodactylus auriculatus)
Originally found in southern New Caledonia, the gargoyle gecko can change its color for a wide variety of reasons.
These include the following:
- Time of day – at night the gecko’s colors will be much darker, making it difficult for predators to spot it
- Mating season – if a gargoyle gecko is looking for a mate, its colors may become more vivid and pronounced to attract a partner
- Temperature change – similar to crested geckos, gargoyles will also undergo a color change at higher temperatures with their complexions usually darkening
Giant Day Gecko (Phelsuma grandis)
Not all giant day geckos can change color, but a sub-species native to Madagascar has been observed to darken when exposed to known threats such as bird calls, amongst others.
This is most likely done to draw less attention to itself and help it blend into the background.
Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko)
Tokay geckos call Asia and the Pacific islands home. Similar to the species listed above, they are also able to change their colors due to environmental factors such as stress and light intensity.
They have even been observed to change so drastically from a light blue/teal color to near solid black.
Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus)
This indigenous inhabitant of Madagascar has the most striking ability to change color. Its normal color is a greyish brown but, since it specializes in camouflaging in between tree branches and leaves, it is even able to achieve green, yellow, or brown coloration!
Northern Leaf-Tailed Gecko (Saltuarius cornutus)
This leaf-tailed critter calls Australia its home. Besides being able to change its color to various different shades of green and yellow, it is also able to regrow its tail in the same way many other geckos can.
How Long Does It Take For A Gecko To Change Color?
There isn’t a lot of research available on the subject of how long it takes for a gecko to change color. Some gecko owners notice it can take up to an hour for their gecko to go from light blue to almost black. Others have witnessed this same change occurring in less than a minute.
There is basis for the assumption that the speed at which a gecko changes color is proportional to the perceived seriousness of the reason for the color change.
Quick, intense changes in lighting may result in the gecko darkening at a much faster rate than simply allowing its tank to darken as daylight fades. Similarly, a rapid increase in stress or agitation may cause a faster color change than the gradual build up of frustration due to higher temperatures or humidity.
The time any gecko takes to change color depends on the animal’s individuality and its tendency to respond to outside stimuli.
My Gecko Has Changed Color Permanently, Why Is That?
Besides their ability to change from one color to another and back again, geckos also undergo longer lasting or even permanent color changes.
Other than environmental factors, permanent or long-term color changes could be as a result of the following:
Most hatchlings or juvenile geckos will differ greatly in appearance from their adult selves.
In many cases the younger geckos lack any distinctive markings or vivid coloring and will only develop this over time.
This might take months, or even years, and the true color of the gecko might not be reached until maturity is achieved.
As the gecko ages, this change may begin to be reversed. An elderly gecko may have much duller colors than one in the prime of its life.
Like most reptiles, geckos cyclically shed their skin. A few days before it begins shedding, a geckos skin might become dull and greyish. This is not a reason for worry, it is simply part of the shedding process.
In most cases, color change in geckos is completely natural and no cause for alarm. However there are two scenarios where action must be taken immediately.
A blackened tail, or black toes, when the rest of the gecko’s color is unchanged may be a sign of necrosis. Necrosis, simply put, is tissue death and could cause serious harm to your gecko. It is imperative you take it to a vet immediately if you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above.
Secondly, black spots across your gecko’s body could be the sign of a bacterial infection. This is yet another indicator to get your gecko to the vet as soon as possible as it may become serious if left untreated.
What Colors Can Geckos Be?
The most common colorations of geckos are green, brown, or gray.
Most geckos can only darken or lighten their coloration, which means the colors they can change to greatly depend on their original complexion.
For example, a Tokay Gecko will change from its usual light blue to almost black. A Crested Gecko has a typical coloration of orange, red, yellow, or brown. The colors it can change into will be either lighter or darker versions of these shades.
What is the Difference Between a Color Changing Chameleon and a Gecko?
Chameleons and geckos are both groups of lizards. Although chameleons have very distinctive features, people tend to think any lizard that can change color is a chameleon.
As explained above, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The reason why geckos change color has been explained extensively in this article and can be summarized simply as a reaction to their environment – whether that is to hide from predators, or in reaction to outside stressors.
Chameleons also use color change to adapt to their environment but are distinctive in the fact that they can take on brilliant, bold colors at will. This is done in communication with other chameleons or animals to signal their dominance, or even that they are in search of a mate. [Source]
Contrary to popular belief, chameleons are not the only members of the lizard family that can change color.
As explained above this is a trait shared by many species of geckos capable of changing the color of their skin for a variety of reasons. They can even do it without seeing a thing!
This makes geckos fascinating creatures to have as pets and, in combination with their relatively easy care regime and willingness to be handled, they are the perfect choice if you are a beginner reptile owner or even just in search of a new, interesting addition to broaden the scope of your collection.