Animals

This Gecko's Tear-Away Skin Helps It Escape the Jaws of Predators

When animals try to capture the newly discovered gecko, they're left with a mouthful of its large scales.

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One of the greatest escape artists in the animal kingdom has just been discovered: a gecko that, due to its tear-away skin, leaves would-be predators with a mouthful of gross, chewy scales as it makes a speedy getaway.

The new gecko, named Geckolepis megalepis and described in the journal PeerJ, has skin that is made up of unusually large scales. Consisting of keratin and bony calcium-rich components, the scales are at the heart of the gecko's defense system.

Birds, snakes and even other bigger geckos that try to eat Geckolepis often fail.

"A typical predator encounter might start with the predator trying to grasp the lizard in its jaws or claws, triggering the scale sloughing, which ideally lets the gecko escape denuded but alive," lead author Mark Scherz told Seeker.

Photo: Denuded Geckolepis megalepis. Credit: F. Glaw

"It then probably seeks a humid, safe place to hide while the scales regenerate, which happens in a few weeks," added Scherz, who is a doctoral student at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and The Bavarian State Collection of Zoology.

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Three-dimensional X-rays of the geckos, which are a type of lizard, enabled Scherz and his team to analyze Geckolepis' anatomy in detail, including its scales. Other geckos are able to lose their skin when predators grab them, but the newly discovered gecko can do this at the slightest touch.

In fact, when Scherz went to capture a few individuals for the study in Marojejy National Park of northeast Madagascar, it took him several, challenging tries.

The gecko would obviously rather not be bothered, especially as it is very costly for the lizard to regrow its scaly skin. But, as Sherz said, at least doing so "is much less costly than being eaten."

When the gecko heals up, it does so scar-free.

"The fact that the regeneration is, at least superficially, scar-less, gives us hope that some process in scale regeneration might have potential for implementation in scar-less healing in humans," Scherz said.

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He added that despite our increasing mastery at understanding stem cell functions, we still have not figured out how to promote the type of complete healing that Geckolepis achieves repeatedly throughout its life.

Scientists are focusing on Geckolepis in hopes of unlocking its secrets that could be applied to regenerating new skin growth in humans.

"The presence of bone in the scales might provide some hope for [human] bone regeneration" too, Scherz said, "but innovations on that front are much more likely to come from some salamanders, which can regenerate whole limbs, bones and all."

Top photo: The new fish-scale gecko, Geckolepis megalepis, has the largest body scales of all geckos. This nocturnal lizard was discovered in the 'tsingy' karst formations in northern Madagascar. Credit: F. Glaw WATCH: 8 Animals That Can Regrow Their Body Parts