Researchers at Vanderbilt University think there is a lot they can learn about the mysteries of the human body by studying a creature that has survived and thrived for millions of years.
An American alligator named Bananas is just one of many that Vandy scientists have watched for the last few years. Specifically, dots near Bananas' mouth have captured their attention.
"They're called integumentary sense organs, or ISOs. They're little dome-like structures that are lining the jaws and by the teeth," said graduate student Duncan Leitch.
Scientist have had a lot of different ideas about what the ISOs do for both alligators and crocodiles.
So, in an effort to unlock this biological mystery, Leitch turned off the lights.
"We're able to monitor them in the dark, and I can block sound by different ways. I can block their sense of hearing, and in that way I can see them using their sense of touch as they are trying to feel around and catch fish or pellets," Leitch said.
Leitch said, as it turns out, the armored reptiles have sophisticated touch sensors that are even more sensitive than human fingers.
What Vanderbilt researchers are learning from the alligators could answer some questions important about touch, such as what humans use in the fingertips.
"It is currently unknown about how the find-touch endings actually function on a molecular level. And when you find a specialist, which is one of our favorite things to look at, you often have an over-expression of those unknown molecules. And that may be something we'll be able to look at," said Professor Kenneth Catania.
That means animals hailing from the prehistoric days are providing some modern lessons. Next, the researchers want to look at how alligators and crocodiles behave and how they use their touch sensors.
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