Gecko and the Wallwalker: the Real Spiderman of the Reptile Kingdom

The gecko is renowned for two attributes; its natural camouflage which often surpasses even that of the chameleon's color-changing ability, and for its ability to walk up smooth glass surfaces.

Gecko are Really Cute

Popularized by those Geico automobile insurance commercials, the gecko has become even more visible in the reptile pet trade. Their gentle disposition (for most species) makes them fairly calm and placid and their diminutive size, also attractive in a pet.

House geckos are downright gentle and slow-moving, making them a more suitable reptile pet around younger children.

green gecko lizard on leafy branches

(image source)

An array of gecko species have been available for years but they always seemed to take a back seat to the industry loss-leaders of the reptiles; the anoles, and common green iguana.

I call these two readily available lizards anoles and green iguanas loss-leaders because pet shops tend to sell them very cheaply. There is virtually no profit made from the sale of these two reptiles. The idea is to get the customer to buy an affordable exotic reptile then commit them to purchasing all the required accoutrement to go with it.

The 50-gallon (minimum) tank, the UV basking light and screen hood to prevent escape, the day/night basking heat element, the 'safe and washable' climbing branches, the hidey-caves, etc. and the recommended books on the subject. And of course the endless need for feeder items which they also supply.

Still, for the avid herper (someone whom keeps reptiles) having a lizard pet is awesome. Geckos do not attain the unmanageable size like the common green iguana, which can reach lengths of around 4 to 5 feet long. This is also a popular consideration; how big will they get? And how long do they live is the next consideration.

Most geckos are just inches long, -reasonably small. Long lived; some gecko species can live for up to 20 years, so it can be a long-term commitment to own a reptile. They are ideal for small apartments with limited room to devote to large aquaria set-ups.

Some species of geckos are parthenogenic; the females produce fertile eggs even with no male present! While this bodes poorly for genetic diversity it can serve to sustain a population or introduce a new colony to an isolated region such as an island, with just one female. Ultimately, sexual reproduction with a male of the species would be required to keep the gene-pool diverse.

Some geckos are active at night and others by day, and they all hunt for insects to eat along with occasional small fruits and leaves. It was popular some years ago in warmer states such as California to buy a nocturnal gecko such as the Tokay Gecko and release it into their basement. You would likely never see it again unless you actively looked for it, as it would hide from view when you turned-on the lights.

The purpose is that they roam around at night eating insects in your home. They can even chase bugs across your ceiling, creeping up on them even while suspended upside-down! Tokay geckos can be a little bit aggressive and are not really user friendly with human handlers, but they are voracious insectivores.

Having a live gecko with free-ranging privileges in the home is a natural and pesticide-free way to rid your living environment of insect invaders so long as you don't mind catching a glimpse of this rather scary-looking creature occasionally as it scurries out of sight.

The main food of all geckos include beetles, meal worms, moths, spiders, roaches, crickets, caterpillars, and pretty much whatever else they can catch. They are opportunistic insectivores. Where they co-exist with man they seem to have found a facultative symbiosis.

Even though it is not necessary for their survival, they often reside near dwellings of man where insects aggregate such as around the overhanging eaves of houses and patio lights at night. Their ability to climb vertical surfaces makes them ideally suited to get nearer the light source and let the ample supply of bugs come to them!

As a hobbyists and fancier of exotic reptiles, I was surprised the first time I heard the vocalization of geckos chirping! They are unique in the world of small reptiles for their ability to vocalize sounds as mating cries.

Gecko Colors and Patterns Galore

leopard gecko

gecko lizard

(image source) and (image source)

Gecko Can Climb Vertical Walls: How Do They Do This?

Geckos have little plate-like flaps of scales on the underside of the toes called lamellae.

These lamellae are covered with microscopic hair-like structures called ‘seta.’ Setae (plural) exist in other creatures such as krill and earthworms, and found in the plant kingdom as well.

Van der Waals Force in Gecko Toes

close-up of the underside of a gecko foot

(image source)

In geckos, it is the innumerable setae on the toes that are believed to be involved with their climbing attributes. Attracted to surfaces by minute gravitational forces between molecules, the cumulative attraction is called the Van der Waals Force is the reason for the attraction.

Such are the number of these minute hairs that the combined attractive force is sufficient to allow the gecko to climb vertical surfaces and even hang and walk upside-down on ceilings! They can walk up vertical panes of glass (as any herper will attest, their aquaria requires a screened hood to prevent escape) as the seta are attracted to microscopic imperfections in the surface of the glass.

Gecko Climbing Ability that is Almost Magical

When the gecko walks up a vertical surface they break away their grip from the Van der Waals attraction by curling their toes as they step forward. A true Spiderman walk that is intriguing to watch. So effective is this Van der Waals force in geckos that they can support up to 8-times their suspended weight hanging by just one toe!

Nature's Velcro, this would be an incredibly useful technological tool if it could be manufactured as wearable outfitter's gear for say, mountain climbers or construction workers. Any profession that requires climbing such as installers of radio tower masts and for building construction whereby the high-climbing workers could benefit from this safety feature. Technology could recreate these Van der Waals force setae in specialty apparel such as climbing gloves, boots or shoes, elbow and knee pads and support/climbing gear.

The advantage of gecko apparel is that greater the weight of the object or person wearing the 'setae suit' the more setae become engaged in retaining the natural adhesive grip. It would be self-adjusting for the weight of the wearer! All this and yet the point of intimate contact would easily separate with gentle peeling and leave no residue marks, allowing the wearer to progress climbing freely.

Millions of micro-hairs per square centimeter would be required to create this Van der Waals force. Such technology is already in the works with tryouts showing tremendous potential.

Geckos make it look so easy. The image of Spiderman climbing the outside of a glass skyscraper is all anyone can think about when they see the gecko doing his magic thing. And it is something they can do naturally.


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Martine Pauwels
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carol roach
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Posted on Mar 23, 2010