Tokay gecko

Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Family: Gekkonidae
Genus and Species: Gekko gecko
  • A gray-blue gecko with rust-orange spots holds onto a tan branch
  • A gray-blue gecko with rust-orange spots against a black background
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Tokay gecko

Tokay geckos are one of the largest living gecko species. They are native to Asia and the Indo-Australian Archipelago, where they often live in the same areas as humans and eliminate unwanted insect pests. These lizards perform the same service in the Small Mammal House where they freely range.

Physical Description

Tokay geckos have cylindrical, squat, somewhat flattened bodies. The limbs are well-defined and uniformly developed, and their head is large and set off from the neck. Their large eyes have vertically-slit pupils and eyelids that are fused together and transparent.

They have remains of a rudimentary third eye on the top of their head, which is believed to coordinate their activity to light conditions.

Tokay geckos' ears are visible as small holes on both sides of the head, and you can actually see straight through their heads through their ears.

Their toes have fine setae on them, allowing them to cling to vertical and over-hanging surfaces and move at fast speeds.

They have soft, granular skin that feels velvety to the touch. The coloration of tokay geckos is very important to its lifestyle; the skin is usually gray with several brownish-red to bright red spots and flecks, but these geckos have the ability to lighten or darken the coloring of their skin. They usually do so in order to blend in or to be less noticeable to other animals.

There are obvious male and female differences in tokay geckos. Males are more brightly colored and slightly larger than females.

Folds of skin prevent tokay geckos from casting a shadow while resting on a tree. They open up the skin fold completely and this allows them to blend in with the tree bark.

They can cast off their tails in defense and regenerate a new one. The part of the tail that has been cast off will continue to move violently for several minutes until it slows down and stops, thus giving the individual time to escape. The tail has several sections on it where it can break off. It takes about three weeks for to completely regenerate a new tail, although it is usually never as long as the original.

Size

Tokay geckos are one of the largest geckos alive today, growing to lengths of around 14 inches (35 centimeters).

Native Habitat

Tokay geckos are found across southeast and east Asia. The two types of tokay geckos, red-spotted and black-spotted, vary in distribution within this range. Black-spotted tokay geckos are more likely to be found in northern Vietnam and mainland China, specifically in the Guanxi, Guangdang and Southern Yunnan Provinces.

Red-spotted tokays are more widespread in southeast Asia, with naturally occurring populations reported in Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and the Indo-Australian Archipelago.

These geckos are also found beyond Asia, but these populations became established due to the pet trade or accidental transport via cargo shipments. In the U.S., tokay gecko populations can be found in Hawaii and Florida. Belize, Martinique and the Lesser Antilles also have tokay geckos, which are considered a pest species. They have been found in Madagascar and have been transported to North America, Singapore, Malaysia and Europe for medicinal purposes.

Tokay geckos are arboreal. They live in tropical rainforests, rock crevices or manmade environments with a variety of microhabitats. Black-spotted tokays are more likely to be found in rocky environments, while red-spotted tokay geckos are more likely to be found in lowland or submontane rainforests.

In some areas, geckos have a mutualistic relationship with people. A gecko may shelter in the ceilings and walls of a home, consuming undesirable insects and other prey. 

Communication

Tokay geckos communicate vocally, using calls to find members of the opposite sex during the breeding season, and as a means of defense (they emit a hissing or croaking noise when being attacked).

Food/Eating Habits

These geckos primarily eat invertebrates, including moths, locusts, grasshoppers, beetles, cockroaches, termites, crickets, mosquitos and spiders. They may also eat small rats, mice and snakes. Tokay geckos are solitary, nocturnal hunters and are more likely to sit and wait for prey than to actively forage, though they do maintain a foraging area. 

 Tokay geckos are large, can consume a lot of prey and thrive in manmade environments, so they are sometimes utilized for the control of insects that are considered pests.

Social Structure

Tokay geckos are solitary creatures; they only encounter the opposite sex during the breeding season. They will defend their territory against intruders, ensuring less competition for food. Males generally guard the territory, though it is sometimes watched by females.

Reproduction and Development

The tokay gecko's breeding season lasts about four to six months. The male uses a call, which can be heard several meters away, to attract a mate. This loud "to-kay" sound is repeated multiple times in a crescendo and is the origin of this gecko's common name.

During the breeding season, tokay geckos release a liquid from the femoral pores located on their upper hind legs. This secretion is thought to attract a mate or to make copulation easier. Males mate frequently with females, often grasping them with their mouths.

Mating takes place every month, allowing females to repeatedly lay eggs throughout the breeding season. When the female finds a laying site, she affixes her hard-shelled eggs to a solid foundation where they are guarded by both parents until they hatch. The eggs are oval-shaped and can be anywhere from 3 millimeters to 45 millimeters.

Hatchlings are 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 centimeters) long. Upon hatching, they eat their outer covering of skin. They reach sexually maturity after about one year. Hatchlings are aggressive and will readily bite, just like their parents.

Sleep Habits
Tokay geckos are a nocturnal species.
Lifespan
Tokay geckos live to be about 10 years old in human care. Their life expectancy in the wild is unknown but expected to be shorter.

Tokay geckos have some protections in different countries throughout their range. While considered common in Cambodia and Thailand, the Chinese Red Data Book lists tokay geckos as an endangered species due to the over-harvesting of wild animals for use in traditional medicine and as pets. Likewise, Vietnam's Red Data Book lists them as a threatened species.

In Malaysia, tokay geckos became a protected species in 2010, and harvesters must have a government-issued permit. However, poor communication, as well as low awareness and enforcement of the law have led to the use of fraudulent permits. Reports from Nepal indicate that tokay geckos are rare, while populations have declined by 50 percent since 2009. Bangladesh does not have protections in place for this species. 

While evidence does not support all of these claims, in traditional Chinese medicine, tokay geckos are believed to treat a number of ailments, such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, kidney issues and skin diseases. The transport of dried tokay geckos is common across southeast Asia and to the U.S., and the over-extraction of this animal is leading to its decline.

In 2009, tokay geckos became a subject of interest for research in novel medicines following rumors that agents in its skin could cure HIV/AIDS. There is no evidence to support this claim, but there was a spike in trafficking of tokay geckos across southeast Asia (especially into Malaysia) and to Europe and North America. 

Tokay geckos are also a common pet, with most coming from Java, Indonesia, where the law limits the harvest of geckos and restricts the transport of tokays as live animals for the pet trade. While this trade is legal, many breeders and private sellers across Southeast Asia have unregulated operations, sell wild-caught geckos and promote the trade of live animals across borders that prohibit this activity.

Help this Species
  • Practice ecotourism by being an advocate for the environment when you’re on vacation. During your travels, support, visit or volunteer with organizations that protect wildlife. Shop smart too! Avoid buying products made from animals, which could support poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.
  • Choose your pets wisely, and do your research before bringing an animal home. Exotic animals don’t always make great pets. Many require special care and live for a long time. Tropical reptiles and small mammals are often traded internationally and may be victims of the illegal pet trade. Never release animals that have been kept as pets into the wild.
  • Are you a student? Did you love what you learned about this animal? Make it the topic of your next school project, or start a conservation club at your school. You'll learn even more and share the importance of saving species with classmates and teachers, too.
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