PARIS - A newly-discovered gecko uses a weird but ingenious tactic to evade capture: it strips down to its pink, naked skin and flees, leaving its attacker with a mouthful of scales, scientists have revealed.
The hard, dense flakes come off with "exceptional ease" and grow back in a matter of weeks, a team of researchers reported in the journal PeerJ this week.
Dubbed Geckolepis megalepis, the little lizard was previously confused with another member of the family of fish-scale geckos, known for their large, sheddable scales.
But closer scientific scrutiny revealed it is a species quite apart - boasting the largest scales of any gecko. And it is more skilled than any other at shedding them at even the slightest touch.
G. megalepis is resident in Madagascar.
"This remarkable ability has made these geckos a serious challenge to scientists who want to study them," said a statement from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
"One of the main ways reptile species can be told apart is by their scale patterns, but these geckos lose their scales with such ease that the patterns are often lost," added study co-author Mark Scherz.
Methods have included trying to catch them with bundles of cotton wool or luring them untouched into plastic bags.
"You have to think outside the box with Geckolepis," said Scherz.
"They are a nightmare to identify."
Without its scales, the matchbox-sized critter is not much to look at - resembling a piece of pink, raw chicken. But alive.
Apart from noting the exceptionally large scales, the team used micro-CT scanning to examine skeletons for other distinguishing characteristics, such as skull width and length.
Among G. megalepis' unique traits is a smaller "attachment area" - where the scales meet the skin - than other fish-scale geckos. This is what allows the flakes to tear from the skin so easily, without leaving a scar.
The creature's name was derived from the Greek megas for "very large", and lepis for "scale." It is the first new gecko species to be described in 75 years.
Reptiles, including geckos, are known for the ability to shed a body part, often all or part of the tail, to escape predator attack.
Few geckos survive to adulthood with their original tails intact, the study authors said.
Scientists are interested in the regeneration ability of lizards for restorative medicine, possibly re-growing lost limbs for accident survivors one day.