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The Alligator Dentist

October 27, 2009

I went to the dentist today. I hate going to the dentist. I hate the dentist too. Nothing fun happens there. Humans are arguably at the pinnacle of our evolutionary development and yet we are subjected to daily brushing, flossing and a bi-annual cleaning that invariably requires listening to Burt Bacharach instrumentals while strapped into a Barcalounger from hell – all so we can keep our teeth longer than our natural biology dictates.

I had a toothache. Apparently a useless molar was coming in sideways and knocking down the rest of my pearly whites like dental dominoes. How’s that for evolution? I know this doesn’t happen to alligators because A) I’ve never seen one at a dentist and B) each tooth serves a very important purpose – to crush prey.

American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) and Crocodilians in general are unique in that they continuously produce teeth throughout their lives. They typically have 74-80 hollow, conical teeth with another set growing beneath it. It reminds me of a sleeve of ice cream cones. Remove a cone and there’s another one ready to go. A long-lived alligator can produce over 3000 teeth during its life and when you consider their diet, it’s an essential adaptation. Hatchlings feed on insects and small fish. As they grow their bite force increases proportionally – a fact that is as intuitive as my dentist telling me sugar is bad for my teeth.

Adult gators feed on larger fish, birds, mammals, other alligators and even turtles. The jaw is fixed so they can’t chew. Instead they rely on sturdy teeth and the most powerful bite of any animal on the planet to mash their prey into easily swallowed chunks. The bite force has been measured at well over 2000 lbs per square inch which is no match for most turtles. But munching shell and bone will often result in chipped or lost teeth. No worries. Another one is right there ready to chomp.


I caught this alligator showing off its toothy smile. Note the socket in the front lower jaw. When the gator closes its mouth, an upper tooth will fit nicely inside. The rest of the jaw displays a monstrous overbite. I know a great place to get that fixed. Bring earplugs!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Carol Sanders permalink
    December 1, 2009 5:06 am

    Great article!

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