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Face the Gator

Learn about the sensitive skin of alligators on this Moment of Science.

You’ve probably seen the commercial that implies that if you don’t use the product being advertised, you’ll have skin like a alligator. Well, as you’ll soon find out, parts of a gator’s skin are pretty sensitive.

As you might have noticed, an alligator’s skin is covered in tiny dots. For a long time, scientists who studied alligators suspected that those dots might be sensory receptors. Just like the nerves in your lips, only more sensitive.

Daphne Soares, at the University of Maryland, did research and found out why alligators need such sensitive skin. She tried all kinds of different simulations to see what made the receptors respond. In the end, she found it was a simple thing: vibrations in the water.

You see, alligators float on the surface. When something shakes the water nearby, it might be food. In her studies, Soares found that even a single drop falling into the water caught the attention of alligators–even ones that had their other senses blocked.

By putting vaseline in their ears and shutting off the lights, she was able to confirm that alligators that can’t hear anything and can’t see anything still turn towards the tiniest vibrations in the water . . . and they usually bite whatever is vibrating.

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