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The ontogeny of bite-force performance in American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

  • Gregory M. Erickson (a1), A. Kristopher Lappin (a2) and Kent A. Vliet (a3)

Abstract

American alligators Alligator mississippiensis undergo major transformations in morphology and ecology during development. These include several thousand-fold changes in body mass, modified snout and dental proportions, and shifts in diet from small, delicate foodstuffs to the inclusion of increasingly larger, more robust prey. How these changes in anatomical form contribute to actual physical performance and niche use is largely unknown. In the present study, bite-force measurements for 41 specimens of A. mississipiensis, were made throughout ontogeny (hatchling–older adults) using a series of precision force transducers. How this performance indicator scaled with respect to cranial and whole-body measurements was determined. Bite-force production throughout development was contrasted with ontogenetic changes in trophic ecology. The influences of this performance measure on these changes were then analysed. The results showed a 800-fold range (12–9452 N) of bite forces with values positively correlating with increases in body size. Scaling of biting forces through ontogeny showed positive allometry with respect to body mass, head length, jaw length, snout–vent length and total length. These patterns may be attributable to allometric growth of individual skeletal elements (and associated musculature), and/or progressive fusion and ossification of skull and jawbones during development. The overall pattern of force increase throughout ontogeny did not vary in association with major shifts in diet. Notably, the bite-force values for adult A. mississippiensis are the highest measured for any living animal and represent the first measures for a large crocodilian. Additionally, these data provide the first documentation of how bite force changes during ontogeny in a reptile. By bridging the rich morphological and ecological databases for these animals, this study opens the door to a comprehensive understanding of feeding in A. mississippiensis. Furthermore, it provides groundwork for standardized comparative studies of feeding among crocodilian, reptilian, or other gnathostome vertebrates.

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All correspondence to: Gregory M. Erickson. E-mail: gerickson@bio.fsu.edu

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