Stealthy alligators dive, rise and roll by moving their lungs

By Ed Yong | March 14, 2008 8:30 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCrocodiles and alligators are the epitome of stealth. They can wait motionlessly for prey on the surface of the water, dive to the bottom, or roll around the length of their bodies, all without creating a single ripple.

AlligatorCloseUp.jpgThis sneaky manoeuvrability is all the more impressive for the fact that a crocodilian can pull it off without moving its legs or tail. It’s particularly difficult because a waiting crocodilian has to move slowly and methodically, and must make do without the helpful forces of lift and drag that accompany faster movements.

Now, for the first time, we know how they do it. They use their lungs like floats, and shift them about their torso using four sets of muscles. If the lungs are pulled back towards the tail, the animal’s centre of buoyancy shifts backwards and it dives; if they are shoved towards the head, it rises; push them to the side and you get a roll.

Alligator anatomy 101

The same muscles that help an alligator to swim without disturbance also allow it to breathe. When it animal inhales, the external intercostal muscles that connect its ribs swing them outwards and forwards to accommodate the extra air. The gator’s belly also expands thanks to the ischiopubis muscle; when this contracts, one of the gator’s jointed hip bones swings downwards and pushes the abdomen out.

Alligatoranatomy.jpgWhen the gator exhales, the internal intercostals swing the ribs inwards and backwards, while the gator’s rectus abdominis (its version of our six-pack) contracts, pulls the hips forward and draws the belly in.

But the main player is the large diaphragmaticus muscle which runs from the hip to the liver, enclosing the stomach and intestines along the way. It also contracts when the gator takes a breath and pulls the liver towards the tail. The liver is directly connected to the lungs and when it moves, so do they.

The hips, muscles and liver all act like a massive piston that shunts the lungs back and forth across the alligator’s chest, moving its centre of buoyancy with them.  

A weighty test

TJ Uriona and C.G. Farmer from the University of Utah surgically attached electrodes to these muscles in five young American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis), and monitored their contractions as the youngsters swam about a small tank.

As expected, they showed a regular cycle of activity as the animals breathed in and out. But even though some of the muscles are used for inhaling and some for exhaling, Uriona and Farmer found that all four sets – the intercostals, ischiopubis, rectus abdominis and diaphragmaticus – contracted as the animal dived. That drew the lungs backwards, made the tail end more buoyant and allowed the alligator to dip its head under the water.

To make the dive easier, Uriona and Farmer made the gators front-heavy by duct-taping small weights to the underside of their jaws. Sure enough, when the weighted animals dived, the torso muscles were less active. When they had weights taped to their tails instead, the opposite happened. The gator had to shift its lungs even further back to pitch its head forward, and accordingly, the torso muscles worked harder than normal.

Uriona and Farmer also found, for the first time, that an alligator can contract the right and left halves of the diaphragmaticus and rectus abdominis muscles independently, which explains its infamous ability to roll. By contracting these muscles on only one side of its torso, it shifts its lungs to the other side and its body starts to rotate.

Using the position of the lungs to manoeuvre in the water seems to be a fairly common strategy among aquatic animals. Frogs, salamanders, turtles and manatees have all evolved their own ways of doing this and while the salamanders rely on a piece of cartilage to do the job, the others use diaphragm-like muscles, just like alligators and crocodiles.

(Alligator photo by Jan Kronsell; anatomical diagram by TJ Uriona)

Reference: Uriona, T.J., Farmer, C.G. (2008). Recruitment of the diaphragmaticus, ischiopubis and other respiratory muscles to control pitch and roll in the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Journal of Experimental Biology, 211(7), 1141-1147. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.015339

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Animal behaviour, Animals, Reptiles

Comments (12)

  1. A great summary, Ed! Articles like this are why I keep coming back to ScienceBlogs. Keep up the good work!

  2. Damian

    Thanks so much, Ed. It’s wonderful to see Alligators and Crocodiles from underneath – too rare a sight on film. Their buoyancy really is a sight to behold, especially for such large animals.
    I hope that you saw the spectacular footage on Life in cold blood the other night? The shots of the water dance (caused by the vibrations of the crocodiles) was simply enchanting.

  3. caynazzo

    Let’s not forget our friends the teleosts, which use not lungs but a pair of air or swim bladders for maneuverability and buoyancy.

  4. @Damian – yeah, wasn’t it great? The alligator communication sequence was a highlight in what was probably my favourite episode of the whole series. Between that, the green turtle mating, the fishing salties and the creche-nursing caiman, Sir David sure knows how to go out in style. Can’t quite believe the Beeb were happy with him poking an alligator with a stick though…

  5. Sven DiMilo

    Where did you find this? The doi is a bad link and the article is not listed in the current issue of JEB.
    Thanks

  6. Sven, the embargo on the paper lifted yesterday, but there’s sometimes a delay before it is published on the journal website or in the DOI database. When it is published, the link will start to work and I will add a Research Blogging citation.

  7. That is soooo sneaky. Sweet.

  8. Sven DiMilo
  9. Chip

    In reference to seeing alligators from the underside: Where do I find this? I have a particular interest in the scales at the base of the jaw joint. I’ve recently noticed, on a pet, a separation of a tear drop shaped scale on either side of the jaw (underside) that has something protruding. It is at the exact same location on the other side of the jaw hinge, and the scales originally appeared to be just expansion sites.

  10. CHARLES VERRASTRO

    I FOUND THIS ILLUMINATING. A LONG TIME RESIDENT ADJOINING THE SEMINOLE INDIAN RESERVATION, I LEARNED THE ART OF ALLIGATOR WRESTLING. MANY NATURALISTS, VETERINARIAN, HERPETOLOGISTS AND EVEN NATIVE SEMINOLE ALLIGAOR WRESTLERS OFTEN SAY PUTTING A GATOR TO SLEEP BY TURNING IT UPON IT’S BACK AND RUBBING IT’S BELLY IS PURE SHOWMANSHIP. HAVING ACTUALLY DONE IT I DISAGREE. PUTTING THIS FACTOID TOGETHER WITH OTHER RESEARCH THAT PROVES ALLIGATORS HAVING RECENTLY GORGED SHUNT THEIR BLOOD SO AS TO BYPASS THEIR LUNGS I BELIEVE I SENSE THE MECHANISM WHEREBY A FED GATOR (THEY ARE ALWAYS SATIATED BEFORE A MATCHUP FOR OBVIOUS REASONS).
    BY FIRST GORGING AND THEN TURNING THE ANIMAL IT’S NORMAL REACTION IS TO FIRST SHUNT THE BLOOD PAST IT’S LUNGS, THEN USES THOSE SPECIAL MUSCLES TO MANIPULATE IT’S LUNGS TO TURN OVER. SUCH ACTIONS CAN EASILY OVEREXTEND IT’S AVAILABLE OXYGEN SUPPLY AND CAUSES FAINTNESS. IT EVEN EXPLAINS THE TRADITIONAL METHOD OF AWAKENING THE ANIMAL, I.E., STRIKING IT BETWEN THE LEGS BETWEEN THE GROIN AREA AND THE LOWER BELLY, RIGHT WHERE THOSE SPECIAL MUSCLE GROUPS ARE INDICATED IN THE ARTICLE.

  11. CHARLES VERRASTRO

    I FOUND THIS ILLUMINATING. A LONG TIME RESIDENT ADJOINING THE SEMINOLE INDIAN RESERVATION, I LEARNED THE ART OF ALLIGATOR WRESTLING. MANY NATURALISTS, VETERINARIAN, HERPETOLOGISTS AND EVEN NATIVE SEMINOLE ALLIGAOR WRESTLERS OFTEN SAY PUTTING A GATOR TO SLEEP BY TURNING IT UPON IT’S BACK AND RUBBING IT’S BELLY IS PURE SHOWMANSHIP. HAVING ACTUALLY DONE IT I DISAGREE. PUTTING THIS FACTOID TOGETHER WITH OTHER RESEARCH THAT PROVES ALLIGATORS HAVING RECENTLY GORGED SHUNT THEIR BLOOD SO AS TO BYPASS THEIR LUNGS I BELIEVE I SENSE THE MECHANISM WHEREBY A FED GATOR (THEY ARE ALWAYS SATIATED BEFORE A MATCHUP FOR OBVIOUS REASONS).
    BY FIRST GORGING AND THEN TURNING THE ANIMAL IT’S NORMAL REACTION IS TO FIRST SHUNT THE BLOOD PAST IT’S LUNGS, THEN USES THOSE SPECIAL MUSCLES TO MANIPULATE IT’S LUNGS TO TURN OVER. SUCH ACTIONS CAN EASILY OVEREXTEND IT’S AVAILABLE OXYGEN SUPPLY AND CAUSES FAINTNESS. IT EVEN EXPLAINS THE TRADITIONAL METHOD OF AWAKENING THE ANIMAL, I.E., STRIKING IT BETWEN THE LEGS BETWEEN THE GROIN AREA AND THE LOWER BELLY, RIGHT WHERE THOSE SPECIAL MUSCLE GROUPS ARE INDICATED IN THE ARTICLE.

  12. Since these creatures swallow rocks to neutralize their buoyancy, I would think the rocks have a greater influence than lungs.
    “diaphragmaticus muscle which runs from the hip to the liver, enclosing the stomach and intestines along the way” means that the rocks are shifted with the stomach as well as the lungs.
    Any comments?

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