Structure, innervation and response properties of integumentary sensory organs in crocodilians.
Integumentary sensory organs (ISOs) are densely distributed on the jaws of crocodilians and on body scales of members of the families Crocodilidae and Gavialidae. We examined the distribution, anatomy, innervation and response properties of ISOs on the face and body of crocodilians and documented related behaviors for an alligatorid (Alligator mississippiensis) and a crocodylid (Crocodylus niloticus). Each of the ISOs (roughly 4000 in A. mississippiensis and 9000 in C. niloticus) was innervated by networks of afferents supplying multiple different mechanoreceptors. Electrophysiological recordings from the trigeminal ganglion and peripheral nerves were made to isolate single-unit receptive fields and to test possible osmoreceptive and electroreceptive functions. Multiple small (<0.1 mm(2)) receptive fields, often from a single ISO, were recorded from the premaxilla, the rostral dentary, the gingivae and the distal digits. These responded to a median threshold of 0.08 mN. The less densely innervated caudal margins of the jaws had larger receptive fields (>100 mm(2)) and higher thresholds (13.725 mN). Rapidly adapting, slowly adapting type I and slowly adapting type II responses were identified based on neuronal responses. Several rapidly adapting units responded maximally to vibrations at 20-35 Hz, consistent with reports of the ISOs' role in detecting prey-generated water surface ripples. Despite crocodilians' armored bodies, the ISOs imparted a mechanical sensitivity exceeding that of primate fingertips. We conclude that crocodilian ISOs have diverse functions, including detection of water movements, indicating when to bite based on direct contact of pursued prey, and fine tactile discrimination of items held in the jaws.