We've all seen a lizard scampering around with a stump where its tail used to be – a sign of a common anti-predator tactic known as "caudal autotomy". But one newly described gecko native to Madagascar takes the shedding strategy to the extreme: to evade danger, Geckolepis megalepis can shed its skin.

Image: F. Glaw

The result isn't pretty, and leaves the animal looking a little like skinless chicken, but it's a small price to pay to avoid being eaten. The reptilian shedders belong to a group of nocturnal lizards called fish-scale geckos. Found only on Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, these tropical creatures get their name from their large scales that overlap like those of fish. 

Image: F. Glaw

So how does the gecko pull of this unsettling trick? G. megalepis has a special layer of cells at the base of the skin dubbed the "tear zone". When trying to wriggle free from the grip of a predator, this slippery customer can shear its scales along the tear zone, giving its attacker the slip. It takes just a few weeks for the scales to regenerate.

The newly discovered geckos join four other species of lizard that lose their skin when threatened, but stand out for their extraordinary size and the thickness of their scales. "The new species has the largest known body scales of any gecko, which come off with exceptional ease," write the authors of a new study describing the species published this week in the journal PeerJ. The lizards part with their skin so readily that study author Mark Scherz has only ever managed to capture one gecko without it losing more than a few scales.

So far, researchers have only found the geckos in a small nature reserve in northern Madagascar. Although their habitat is protected, the geckos face threats from nearby mining operations, human-caused fires and free-ranging livestock. Scherz has recommended that the species be listed as "near threatened" on the IUCN's Red List.