Armoured in elaborate scales, the skins of crocodiles and alligators are much prized by the fashion industry. But sadly, not all skins are from farmed animals. Some are from endangered species and according to Ken Catania from Vanderbilt University, USA, sometimes the only way to distinguish legitimate hides from poached skins is to look at the distribution of thousands of microscopic pigmented bumps that pepper crocodiles' bodies. Adding that the minute dome organs are restricted to the faces of alligators, Catania puzzled, ‘What are the organs for?’ Explaining that they have been proposed to detect subtle shifts in water salinity and shown to sense ripples in water, Catania says, ‘We suspected that there might be more to the story’, so he and Duncan Leitch teamed up to take a closer look at the small structures (p. 4217).
Observing the skin of American alligators and Nile crocodiles with scanning electron microscopy, Leitch could see that each dome was surrounded by a hinge depression. And when he sliced through a series of domes to identify the sensory receptor structures beneath, he found sensitive free nerve endings near the dome surface, and laminated corpuscle structures – which are vibration sensitive – and dermal Merkel complexes – which respond to sustained pressure – in the lowest skin layer.
Next, Leitch stained the nerve structures leading from the skin through the reptile's jaw and painstakingly traced the sensitive trigeminal nerve as it branched to the domes. ‘The innervation of these jaws was incredible!’ exclaims Catania. The entire jaw was infiltrated with a delicate network of nerves. ‘There was a tremendous number of nerve endings and each of the nerve endings comes out of a hole in the skull’, Leitch adds. Referring to the animal's combative lifestyle, he suggests that this arrangement protects the delicate trigeminal nerve fibres – carried inside the skull – from damage during attacks while maximising the nerve endings' sensitivity at the surface.
But none of these discoveries answered the question of which system the domes relay sensory information to. Recalling that the domes had been proposed to detect salinity changes and even electric fields, Leitch gently bathed the limbs of Nile crocodiles in brackish water while carefully recording the electrical activity in the spinal nerve, but couldn't detect a signal. And when he repeated the experiments while applying a weak electric field to the water, there was no response again. However, when Leitch gently touched one of the sensory domes with a minute hair designed to test human touch sensitivity, he discovered that the domes around the animals' teeth and jaws were even more touch sensitive than human finger-tips. And when he filmed crocodiles and alligators going about their business in the aquarium at night, he was impressed at how fast the animal's 50–100 ms response times were. ‘As soon as they feel something touch, they snap at it’, recalls Catania.
So, why do such well-armoured animals require such an exquisite sense of touch? Leitch suggests that this sensitivity allows the animals to distinguish rapidly between unpalatable pieces of debris and tasty prey while also allowing mother crocodiles to dextrously aid their hatching young by extracting them from the egg with their jaws. The pair is keen to understand how these sensory areas map onto the forebrain. Explaining that massive regions of the human brain are dedicated to processing touch sensory information, Catania says, ‘Crocodilians are not an ancestor to humans, but they are an important branch that allows us to fill in key parts of the evolutionary puzzle for how sensory maps in the forebrain have evolved’.