Get up close to the best-kept secrets in the Climatron.
The Climatron® Conservatory has been a Garden icon since its opening in 1960, but many visitors may pass through this tropical environment unaware it hosts one of the Garden’s best-kept secrets under its geodesic dome.
While visiting the Climatron in the late 1990s, a gecko aficionado envisioned the conservatory’s lush beds as the perfect home for adorable green geckos. In 2000, the Garden graciously accepted a donation of 100 new permanent residents. An additional donation of 300 more geckos followed in 2014. In return for free housing and food, the non-invasive geckos have helped to control the pest population inside the Climatron ever since. It’s a win-win for all.
Today, various species of Phelsuma geckos can be found throughout the Climatron and greenhouses across the Garden. These little tree climbers, leaf hang gliders, upside down walkers have no fear thanks to clinging pads on their toes that work as an adhesive on any surface. On the sunniest days you can see dozens of geckos throughout the Climatron catching some rays on trees or large leaves. Sometimes patrons can even find geckos sunbathing on the outside of the Climatron® glass. The geckos can’t survive on their own outside the Climatron®, but if these clever reptiles can find a way out, they can likely find a way back in.
Horticulturist Susan Ratcliff has worked for the Garden for the past twenty years and currently oversees the care of the Climatron animals. In getting to know the Climatron geckos, Ratcliff grew so fascinated that she ultimately launched a gecko-breeding program to sustain their population at the Garden. A 55-gallon tank in her house has been the home to an unnamed female and male gecko for the past three years, Ratcliff says. “I can’t name them, or else I’ll get too attached!” The female gecko produces anywhere from ten-fifteen eggs a year. After the eggs hatch, Ratcliff carefully removes the juvenile geckos from their parents and takes them to the private “Zoo Room,” located directly beneath the Climatron.
The Zoo Room serves as a sanctuary for the juvenile geckos to grow for three-four months before being released in the Climatron. Geckos have been known to eat whatever they can overpower, so isolating the juvenile geckos from their parents and adult geckos is the best way to protect them.
The Zoo Room is deep within the underground tunnels that connect the Climatron to other facilities on Garden grounds. A rarely seen nocturnal gecko has migrated to these tunnels and gives construction workers a hefty scare, Ratcliff says. “I know it’s bad I laugh, but there’s something terribly funny about hearing contractors scream at the top of their lungs over a harmless gecko.” Ratcliff states they always try to warn construction workers about geckos hiding in crevices…but occasionally they forget.
“I know it might sound ridiculous, but each gecko has its own personality.” –Horticulturist Susan Ratcliff
Although geckos are small, they can surely pack a punch! When touring the Climatron, one may find geckos rapidly nodding their heads. This territorial and breeding gesture occurs when geckos invade the space of another. These battles can conclude with a nibbling bite or the gecko detaching its tail. This unique characteristic is a defense mechanism in which the wiggling tail distracts the aggressor, the gecko scurries away, and a new tail regenerates after a few weeks. Releasing food every seven-to-ten days keeps aggression down among the gecko population. Their diet consists of crickets, fruit, and veggies, which Ratcliff places in feeding pods throughout the building. Patrons can occasionally find geckos eating from feeding pods with their fellow Climatron tenants, mice and birds.
Ratcliff estimates that there are 500 geckos across the Garden. Their sneaky habits of hiding in plants sometimes results in being accidentally transported to another part of the Garden. Occasionally, a wild goose chase and elaborate capture is held to ensure that a gecko gets back to a survivable environment such as the greenhouses or Climatron®. But ultimately, the geckos do what they want.
In a way, it’s their Garden; we’re just visiting it.
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