Posted Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, at 2:42 PM
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Alligators and crocodiles sure are touchy. Researchers at Vanderbilt University have discovered that the scaly beasts have a network of nerve fibers spread inside and outside their mouths that are more sensitive to the touch than human fingertips.
The nerve fibers, concealed under tiny bumps, connect to the brain through a small hole in the skull. Researchers found that when they brushed food near the bumps, the animals snapped on average within 50 to 100 milliseconds of contact—about as immediate as it gets.
What is the evolutionary advantage of the reptiles’ sensitive side? Previous theories suggested they helped alligators and crocodiles detect salinity, but the new study argues that it helps more with underwater hunting and in the care of offspring. Alligators and crocodiles use their jaws to help hatch and transport their young, so the super-sensitivity may be a boon in keeping track of the little ones.