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Do Alligators Have Ears?

27 August 1999

Unlike humans and most other mammals, crocodilians have no external ear. Don’t assume they can’t hear, however.

 

Alligators and their kin do possess eardrums – you just have to know where to find them. They are located just behind the eyes, and are protected by scaly, moveable flaps of skin. The positioning of the ears, in conjunction with the nostrils and eyes, is perfectly suited to this reptilian’s habitat.

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Gator Ears and Crocodile Tears -- Crocodillians are perfectly adapted to their habitats. Locations of eyes and ears, along with special muscles that close off nostrils when submerged help these reptiles survive underwater.

It allows the alligator to remain submerged with only the top of its head exposed so that it can still hear, breathe and see. Unlike most reptiles, the alligator comes equipped with some extra features to make life in the wetlands easier.

 

Many of these special adaptations help the animal survive in underwater. For instance, a special set of muscles close the alligator’s nostrils when it dives. Likewise, a special valve in the back of the alligator’s throat prevents water from entering the mouth when the animal is submerged. This adaptation is especially useful when the alligator captures prey underwater. In order to eat, however, the alligator’s head must be above water. Finally, the alligator has a transparent third eyelid, known as a nictitating membrane, that covers the eyes when it swims.

 

Speaking of eyes, what about those famed crocodile tears? It is true that crocodilians do produce tears – they are secreted from glands that are similar to human tear ducts. The tears help keep the eye clean and lubricate the nictitating membrane. The tears are most noticeable when an alligator has been out of the water for some time and the eye is drying out. While crocodilians definitely produce tears, it’s only a myth that they cry over their victims. Natural historians trace the origin of the story back to a 13th Century French encyclopedia written by the Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus. The image of such a predator crying after the kill was powerful and ironic enough to become a permanent part of popular culture even today.

 

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