Leopard Geckos aren’t exactly known for their brainpower and if you spend any time around leopard geckos keepers you’ll probably hear the word “derpy” used to describe these little lizards.
And derpy doesn’t mean they’re smart. Quite the opposite.
Sure, leopard geckos are far from one of the smartest reptiles, but do they really deserve to be called derpy? Are leopard geckos smart…or are they dumb?
Even though intelligence can be very difficult to measure, especially in reptiles, it would be hard to call leopard geckos smart or intelligent. This is especially true when you compare them to other lizards which show a better ability to target, problem solve, and learn. Instead, leopard geckos appear to be primarily driven by instinct.
I know that may be disappointing to some folks but let’s take a closer look at how we came to this conclusion with everything you need to know about leopard geckos and brainpower.
What Makes Reptiles Intelligent?
Before we dive into what makes a leopard gecko smart (or…not so smart) we first need to figure what we even mean by smart and how we can tell the difference between intelligence and instinct.
Instinct Vs Intelligence
Nature.com gives us a highly technical but still useful definition of intelligence when they explain that intelligence includes behaviors that are adapted to “the peculiar circumstances of its individual existences.” In other words, intelligence can be seen when reptiles react to stimuli that are specific to their individual situation or environment.
When it comes to the smartest snakes, we saw King Cobras that were able to drink from water bottles and it’s safe to say that shows some level of intelligence. King Cobras have instincts to drink water but it takes brains to figure out you can get it from a well-placed water bottle.
Making this distinction between intelligence and instinct is the first step to any conversation about leopard gecko intelligence. It may be impressive to see a leopard gecko quickly identify their prey or know that there’s a female present but these are quickly placed into the category of instinct.
When a leopard gecko falls off the same ledge in their enclosure 5 times in a row and can’t figure out why…that’s intelligence.
Still, it’s not a perfect way to measure things and many studies have been set up in a way that makes reptiles look dumb. However, that’s not always the problem for the derpy (but very cute) leopard gecko and they can’t exactly blame the design of a study when they fail to bite a meal worm after 6 tries (we’ll watch that video later).
Other common signs of basic reptile intelligence include recognizing their owner from other people and reacting to specific signs that signal meal time.
How Smart Are Leopard Geckos?
Now that we have a better definition for leopard gecko intelligence let’s try to figure out how smart these cute little lizards really are and why some folks insist that leos are more clever than we give them credit for.
Does Recognizing Sex Pheromones Make Leopard Geckos Smart?
One of the most common arguments for leopard gecko intelligence is that males can smell the specific sex pheromones of female leopard geckos.
While that may be impressive to us as humans, it’s mostly just because we aren’t leopard geckos. Humans have some mind-blowing abilities to subconsciously detect pheromones too but it only works with our own species.
This falls clearly into the category of instinct and doesn’t suggest that leopard geckos are any smarter than any other species that has figured out how to reproduce! The same is true for leopard geckos that act territorial during the mating process and we can also put that in the instinct and not brains bucket.
Some Leopard Geckos May Recognize Their Owners
You’ll find a lot of debate around this one but many folks claim that their leopard gecko recognizes them specifically.
This is absolutely something you’ll see in other smart reptiles so it’s a good test of a leo’s brainpower. While it’s possible that leopard geckos can do this you shouldn’t expect them to pick up the habit without plenty of food as a reward.
Even though most leopard geckos may not get there, the fact that some seem to be able to recognize their owner definitely gives them a step up in intelligence compared to other reptiles.
What About The Brain Cell Study?
Some folks will refer to studies about leopard geckos growing new brain cells as a sign of intelligence…but that doesn’t exactly add up.
While the study is great news for science and the little leopard gecko (ironically) may hold the secret to healing injured or aged brains it doesn’t mean that these lizards are smart.
After all, you wouldn’t point to leopard gecko’s ability to regrow their tail as a sign of intelligence and we shouldn’t change our conclusions just because we’re talking about a different type of cell. So this study is more of a testament to a leopard gecko’s ability to regrow damaged cells and not an indication of intelligence.
Have Leopard Geckos Been Part Of Other Studies?
Leopard Geckos aren’t part of many studies, at least not any that I’ve seen published, but there is one that study that looked at a leopard gecko’s ability to follow the gaze of other creatures.
Gaze following is the ability to tell where someone is looking based on the position of their eyes. It’s the sort of thing humans take for granted and it’s quite common in social creatures but not so common in leopard geckos and other lizards which are traditionally considered asocial.
The study found that leopard geckos can follow the gaze of another creature.
So is this intelligence or instinct?
It’s hard to tell. But it does tell us one thing for certain: leopard geckos are paying attention to the world around them which suggests some intelligence. They’d have to be paying attention in order to ever follow the gaze of another creature. It’s not a completely novel stimulus but it does suggest there’s a lot we still don’t know about leopard geckos and reptiles in general.
The Case For Leopard Gecko Intelligence
Those are some of the strongest points you can make for the brainpower of a leopard gecko. It doesn’t exactly suggest that these critters are going to win a Nobel Prize but the ability to recognize their owners and react to specific stimuli around them does suggest they have some level of smarts.
Why Do Some Leopard Geckos Seem So Dumb?
Now let’s look at the other side. We’re going to see a bit more evidence that suggests leopard geckos aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
Okay, we’re going to see a lot more.
Some of these will explain why leopard geckos are lacking in brainpower and others will explain why it seems like they aren’t the brightest.
Leopard Geckos Have A Small Brain
In most cases, there’s a connection between the size of the brain and the intelligence of the animal. Additionally, there’s the brain-to-body mass ratio and humans for example have a very large brain in proportion to the rest of their body.
Leopard Geckos don’t score well in either category.
As you’d expect, leopard geckos have a small brain that’s proportionate to their body. That’s not going to give them much brainpower to work with.
However, it’s not a perfect excuse and even small lizards like the little green anole have demonstrated impressive learning ability and far more intelligence than the leopard gecko. Still, a tiny brain isn’t an advantage by any means.
Inbreeding Hasn’t Helped Leopard Gecko Intelligence
The leopard gecko is second only to the bearded dragon in terms of popularity as a pet- and even that may be debatable.
But this massive popularity hasn’t been all good and many breeders have tried to produce as many leopard geckos are quick as possible, even it means inbreeding. Even if these lizards may have started out as one of the smarter reptiles, generation after generation of inbreeding hasn’t helped them develop any intelligence.
Terrible Hunting Skills
When I look at a chihuahua, I start to wonder how they could possibly survive in the wild. But the thing is, they never did and the chihuahua is a product of hundreds of years of selective breeding.
However, I have the same thought when I watch my leopard gecko try to eat a barely moving mealworm. Except leopard geckos don’t have quite the same excuse as the chihuahua and they’re much closer to their wild counterparts (minus the inbreeding).
Just check out this leopard gecko do his best to eat a barely moving mealworm:
It’s hard to watch that little hunting exhibition and then categorize the leopard gecko as an intelligent lizard. It’s hunting skills like these that lead many folks to call the leopard gecko a little dumb…but they’re still cute!
Poor Spatial Awareness
It shouldn’t be a surprise if you watched the video above, but leopard geckos aren’t well known for their spatial awareness.
That means they’ll happily walk off ledges, tables, or your hand.
When handling, it’s your job to keep your hand underneath them so they don’t go wandering off the closest ledge. Luckily, leopard geckos are able to easily survive falls from several feet up without a problem but it’s not something you want to test.
This trait alone doesn’t make an animal dumb or smart, but knowing your leopard gecko will walk off the table without your intervention doesn’t exactly lead people to believe that these reptiles are particularly brainy.
As extremely social creatures, it’s no surprise that humans have a bit of bias towards other creatures that are social- especially when it comes to intelligence.
Dogs, for example, are also extremely social and so they’re always looking to us for cues and signals. Humans do the same thing and you’re constantly reading the face, tones, and body language of other humans around you.
As asocial creatures, leopard geckos didn’t evolve to read social settings (which is what makes the gaze study above so interesting) and their asocial nature can make them seem a bit dumb- at least to social creatures like us. It’s not that they don’t know what you’re doing but it’s more likely that they don’t care.
But don’t be offended! That’s just part of being an asocial lizard!
The Case For Leopard Geckos Being Dumb
There’s a much stronger case on the side of leopard geckos not exactly being the brightest bulb.
While some of the evidence is just leopard geckos being leopard geckos, watching a little leo fail to bite a stationary mealworm can really make you wonder what’s going on inside that tiny head.
And it appears that there’s not much!
Does Leopard Gecko Intelligence Matter?
Just because leopard geckos aren’t as brainy as their other reptile relatives doesn’t mean they aren’t great pets still. In fact, some folks may find their difficulty catching those pesky mealworms to be positive and it can certainly be entertaining and cute to watch.
However, just know that as a less-than-smart lizard, leopard geckos aren’t going to be able to run around the house or even on the table without supervision. Not only are they way too small for something like that, but they’re also note spatially aware enough for that to be safe.
Still, leos are one of the easier reptiles to handle, easy to care for (at least compared to other herps) and a great reptile to keep even if they aren’t brainiacs.
Some folks may be disappointed to hear that leopard geckos aren’t known for their intelligence and others won’t be surprised.
But what do you think? Is your leopard gecko smarter than the average lizard?