National Geographic News
An alligator hunts by lurking motionlessly in shallow water, in wait of unwary prey. When another animal unknowingly blunders too close, the predator reacts, lunging with lightning speed while openingand then slamming shutits powerful jaws.
Now, a student scientist's accidental observation has led to new insights on how these hunters react with such instant reflexes. These ancient reptiles detect movement using not only hearing and sight, but also a specialized set of nerves that gives them extreme sensitivity to touch.
Alligators and their relativescollectively called crocodilianshave small, raised, bluish freckles on their faces, scattered around the mouth like the stubble of a beard. These bumps lack pores and hairs, and have thinner skin than the surrounding areas of the face. In most crocodilians, the bumps are distributed in a dense, scattered pattern across the skin.
Although scientists noticed the freckles long ago, they couldn't discern the structures' purpose. Daphne Soares, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, has now determined that the bumps, which she calls "dome pressure points," are packed with nerves that make them extraordinarily sensitive.
It's that unique sensory abilitywhich can detect waves produced by a single droplet hitting the water's surface several feet awaythat give crocodilians their hunting proficiency.
The new insight stems from a serendipitous observation Soares recently made. On a ride with colleagues through a Louisiana swamp, she was sharing the back of a pick-up truck with a fearsome-lookingthough restrainedalligator. "I was looking at his jaw as we rode along and thought, I wonder what those little spots are for,'" she recalls.
Soares checked into the matter and found that no one really had a good idea of what purpose the bluish bumps served. So she decided to investigate the question herself.
A Turn Toward Trouble
"Crocodilians hunt at night, half-submerged in water, waiting for prey to disrupt the surface," says Soares. "Their jaws rest right at the interface of air and water. When they're hungry, they quickly attack anything that disturbs that interface."
Since the domes lie along the surface of the water when crocs and gators are in their hunting posture, Soares wondered whether they might play some role in the animals' snappy reflexes.
To test that hypothesis, she placed an alligator in a completely dark tank of waterthus robbing them of sightand soundlessly dripped a single droplet to one side of the gator.
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