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Under the Microscope: Leopard Gecko Skin

This lizard is named for its resemblance to the large cat, although not all leopard geckos feature the familiar black spots on yellow skin. Variations ranging from stripes instead of spots to albino, to a spot-less body and spotted tail are all possible, although leopard spots are the norm.

Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) are a popular pet in many countries. They’re fairly easy to take care of, small, rarely bite, (and when they do it’s pretty painless) and can live up to 25 years! 

This lizard is named for its resemblance to the large cat, although not all leopard geckos feature the familiar black spots on yellow skin. Variations ranging from stripes instead of spots to albino, to a spot-less body and spotted tail are all possible, although leopard spots are the norm.

Leopard geckos get their colouring from special pigment-containing cells called chromatophores in their skin. Chromatophores are found in reptiles, fish, crustaceans and cephalopods, whereas birds and mammals instead have chromatocytes.

There are a few different types of chromatophores that can be categorized according to what pigments they contain. Ones containing yellow are named xanthophores, while those containing red or orange are called erythrophores. Melanophores contain a dark brown pigment while cyanophores contain, you guessed it, cyan pigments.

There are even chromatophores which make an animal appear iridescent called iridophores or leucophores. Some animals that use these include chameleons and squids. Some squids can change their colour by migrating different types of chromatophores to different locations on their body. The relative concentration of each type of chromatophore will determine the overall colour of the skin. 

About once a month (more often when younger) leopard geckos will shed their skin. They shed to allow themselves to keep growing, and after the skin is removed, they eat it! There are two theories as to why they consume the skin. It may be that they are attempting to hide signs that they have been in an area, or it may be that they are recapturing the vitamins and minerals (especially calcium) that the skin is full of. 

The skin that was placed under the microscope to generate this image was taken from an all yellow part of the shed skin of my 14-year-old leopard gecko, Geico, but nonetheless, a few melanophores are visible as dark dots within the cells.


@AdaMcVean