The ancient Egyptians thought they were bad luck. In China, their bodies are used as ingredients in traditional medicine. In the United States, they speak with a British accent and sell insurance on TV.
But the National Geographic Museum is out to show there’s much more to geckos than the way they’re portrayed in advertising.
A selection of 70 live geckos is on display at the museum as part of “Geckos: From Tails to Toepads.” The 18 varieties in the exhibit represent a fraction of the more than 1,200 (and counting) known species of geckos.
Museum director Susan Norton said the number of geckos in the exhibit might grow even before it leaves Washington — a few of the geckos have laid eggs in their enclosure.
The museum jumped at the chance to host the traveling exhibit, organized by Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland in Allenwood, Pa., when it learned how diverse the selection of geckos would be, she said. The museum has hosted a Reptiland exhibit on frogs in the past.
National Geographic added its own flair to the exhibit with photo displays and a permanent acquisition, Norton said. The museum purchased its own pet gecko that could play a role in educational demonstrations.
The critters in the exhibit range from brightly colored day geckos, which are often jewel-toned and easy to spot, to nocturnal geckos, which are muted in color. Some of the nocturnal geckos blend in to their environment so well that it’s difficult to find them in their tanks.
Since the geckos can’t fend for themselves, Reptiland zookeeper Colin Walker is charged with caring for the cute and clingy lizards. National Geographic staff have been calling him “the gecko guy.”
Two characteristics distinguish geckos from their reptilian cousins: sticky toepads and a lack of eyelids, Walker said. The only exception is the desert-dwelling leopard gecko, which evolved differently because sand would get stuck in toepads and severely damage unprotected eyes.
Toepads allow the gecko to cling to just about any surface, from any angle, with very little physical effort. And because geckos don’t have the protection of eyelids, they use their tongues to lick their eyes clean.
The museum’s graphic designers have created eyeball-shaped lollipops so kids can do what the geckos do, Norton said.
Walker said he is occasionally asked if the geckos can talk like the famous insurance-selling one, but that description isn’t too far off; geckos are one of the few lizard species that do vocalize.
The pale blue and orange-spotted Tokay geckos are among the most vocal in the exhibit, occasionally making loud barking sounds to scare off predators. They can also administer a painful, but not poisonous, bite if their warnings aren’t heeded.
The exhibit is designed to appeal to a wide age range and has excited kids and adults alike in previews, Norton said.
“Geckos” will be on display at the National Geographic Museum (1145 17th St. NW) until Jan. 5. Tickets are $7 for adults and $4 for children under 12. Admission is free on Wednesdays.