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This gecko sheds its scales and goes butt naked to escape predators

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Meet Geckolepis megalepis

Photo C shows Geckolepis megalepis without its scales
Frank Glaw

Some people pee themselves in scary situations. This gecko sheds its skin and goes naked, instead. The new species, called Geckolepis megalepis, is originally from Madagascar, where other species of geckos are known to lose their scales when threatened. The animal is described in a study published today in PeerJ.

The little, nudist creature has really big scales, which are shed alongside a layer of skin cells whenever the gecko is under stress. It’s a defense mechanism: if a predator grabs the gecko, the animal quickly loses its fish-like scales, running away while the predator is left chewing on a bunch of skin. Call it gross, but it’s a lifesaver.

In fact, the gecko sheds its scales so easily that it’s hard for researchers to capture intact specimens. In the 1800s, when the species was discovered, researchers wrapped the geckos with cotton to prevent the loss of scales. (It was unsuccessful.) Today, researchers lure them into bags to avoid stressful contact, but even then some scales are lost. They regrow pretty quickly, though — in a matter of weeks.

Because the scales are lost so easily, it’s been hard for scientists to identify the different species of fish-scaled geckos. (Reptile species are often identified by their scale patterns.) In 2013, researchers sequenced the DNA of several fish-scaled gecko specimens and identified 12 different species. So to figure out whether G. megalepis indeed accounted as its own species, the authors of today’s paper analyzed its bone anatomy. The high-resolution 3D images of the gecko’s skeleton revealed that it is a distinct species.

Despite its amazing defensive strategy, the nudist gecko hasn’t been able to get away from a bigger threat: humans. G. megalepis lives in the forests of Madagascar’s Ankarana Reserve, where illegal deforestation, sapphire mining, human-caused fires, and free-ranging livestock pose a danger to the reptile. For this reason, the authors propose that the new gecko species be listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.