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New gecko species boasts giant scales and tear-away skin

"A study a few years ago showed that our understanding of the diversity of fish-scale geckos was totally inadequate," researcher Mark D. Scherz said.

By
Brooks Hays
A rarity, a Geckolepis megalepis specimen with all of its scales in place. Photo by F. Glaw/PeerJ
A rarity, a Geckolepis megalepis specimen with all of its scales in place. Photo by F. Glaw/PeerJ

Feb. 7 (UPI) -- A newly identified fish-scale gecko species has mastered the art of escape. While other gecko species can easily abandon their tail to squirm free from the jaws or talons of a predator, the newly named species can quickly forsake large patches of skin.

The species, Geckolepis megalepis, boasts tear-away skin. Its large scales -- the largest of any gecko species -- are only attached by a narrow band of flesh and are easily torn free, allowing the gecko wiggle free, leaving its pursuer with only mouth full of scales.

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The species doesn't have to suffer exposure for long; its lost scales and skin regenerate in a few weeks.

Researchers believe the large surface area of each super-size scale relative to the connective tissue enhances their ability to easily detach.

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"What's really remarkable though is that these scales -- which are really dense and may even be bony, and must be quite energetically costly to produce -- and the skin beneath them tear away with such ease, and can be regenerated quickly and without a scar," Mark D. Scherz, a postdoctoral student at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, said in a news release.

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Because even the slightest touch can trigger the release of its scales, scientists have had to use creative strategies for catching, handling and studying the species. Some researchers tried using cotton balls to grab the geckos, but luring specimens into plastic bags proved the most effective method.

Scherz and his colleagues described the new species in the journal PeerJ. But while they have a solid sense of the new species, confusion surrounds other lineages in the Geckolepis genus.

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"A study a few years ago showed that our understanding of the diversity of fish-scale geckos was totally inadequate," Scherz said. "It showed us that there were actually about thirteen highly distinct genetic lineages in this genus, and not just the three or four species we thought existed."

Scale patterns offer the simplest way to identify different gecko species, but adult Geckolepis megalepis specimens are often missing scales. Researchers used CT scans to study skeletal features in order to differentiate between different species.

Their skeletal analysis confirmed Geckolepis megalepis as unique, but revealed another species, Geckolepis maculata, named 150 years ago, to be less special than originally thought.

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"This is just typical of Geckolepis," Scherz said. "You think you have them sorted out, but then you get a result that turns your hypothesis on its head. We still have no idea what Geckolepis maculata really is -- we are just getting more and more certain what it's not."

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