A-z - Animals

Alligator Teeth: Everything You Need to Know

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crocodile teeth close-up
Crocodiles have 74 to 80 teeth.

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Alligators are a famous roadside attraction in the southeastern United States. These semi-aquatic reptiles are members of the crocodile order Alligatoridae — the same order that crocodiles, gators and caimans all belong to. There are two extant species of alligators: the American alligator and the alligator.

Alligators are smaller than the dreaded Nile crocodile. While some American alligators approach 20 feet in length, most reach a maximum length of nearly 14 feet. Alligators are smaller, usually about seven feet long.

They may look alike, but alligators and crocodiles have some very important differences — starting with their teeth. Here, we'll learn all about crocodile teeth, what they're used for, and how they grow replacement teeth. We then learn about the special, one-of-a-kind teeth baby crocodiles have and just how dangerous these incredible creatures are to humans.

What kind of teeth do crocodiles have?

Alligators have a wide nose, unlike crocodiles, which have relatively narrow jaws. They have two rows of teeth in their mouths — one above and one below — that surround their mouth like the letter "U." Most of their 74-80 teeth are about the same size; except for the fourth tooth from the front.

This tooth is located where the canines go on the dog's body and is larger than the other teeth. It has a slightly different structure than the front teeth, which in turn differ from the back teeth. These differences make the crocodile a heterodont — meaning it has more than one type of tooth, even though they all look alike.

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crocodile smile

Chinese alligator front profile
Alligators have a bite; when they close their mouths, only their upper teeth are visible

©iStock.com/zhnger

The easiest way to tell an alligator apart from a crocodile is by its smile. When crocodiles close their mouths, all their teeth — the upper and lower — show the gums. But when the crocodile closes its mouth, only the upper teeth are visible. These maxillary (top) teeth overhang the lower jaw because crocodilians have a slight overbite.

But where do the lower teeth go when the crocodile closes its mouth? Well, crocodiles have special sockets in their maxilla (upper jaw) for their lower teeth. When they close their mouths, the underlying teeth fit nicely into their sockets.

So if you can't tell whether you're looking at an alligator or a crocodile, just look at their smiles. Remember, alligators have bites; alligators don't.

How do crocodiles use their teeth?

Alligator teeth are not sharp, they are actually rather blunt and blunt. They do not use their teeth to tear large chunks of meat from large prey, and due to their large jaw muscles, they are unable to chew. Instead, alligators use their numerous teeth to grip slippery prey like fish and birds.

Once the crocodile has something in its mouth, there's no escape – unless the crocodile decides to let go. This is where dull teeth come into play. Instead of cutting, they grip, preventing their prey from escaping. Alligators mostly eat small prey that they can swallow in one bite, but in order to swallow it – they have to grab it first.

Alligators are ambush predators. When they find something to eat, they attack – trapping the creature in their jaws. Alligators have one of the strongest bites on Earth. Typically, they hunt prey that can be swallowed in one gulp. However, if they happen to grab something larger, they grab it with their jaws, then roll their entire body in a death roll in order to take out enough flesh to swallow.

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new teeth

Alligators often lose or break teeth. These are replaced almost immediately by new teeth growing from the surrounding dental layers. Crocodiles may grow hundreds of teeth in their lifetime, thanks to a very special type of cell located in the dental plate.

Crocodiles regenerate teeth as fast as humans regenerate nails. They achieved this by using odontogenic stem cells in the jawbone. These cells help to grow new teeth. That's a good thing, too; crocodiles live a long time, and if they can't regrow lost teeth, they'll have a hard time feeding themselves.

Are alligator teeth hollow?

When the crocodile grows new teeth, the new teeth will erupt under the old teeth and slowly push the old teeth out. Therefore, the teeth of crocodiles are hollow. But in this case, hollow doesn't mean fragile. Alligator teeth grow one after the other, but they are still very tough.

egg teeth

baby crocodile hatch
The little crocodile has a tiny egg tooth on the tip of its nose

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Alligators have one extra tooth that disappears by adulthood; the egg tooth. Like all reptiles, alligators start life inside eggs. Egg shells are much tougher than egg shells – they have to protect the baby crocodiles inside.

As juveniles develop, a tiny, sharp tooth-like protrusion grows from the tip of their snout. This is egg tooth. When the crocodile is ready to hatch, it knocks its egg teeth against the inside of the shell. The shell cracked open, and the baby crocodile escaped from the egg for good.

Do crocodiles bite?

Since crocodiles and humans often share the same habitat, contact between the two is common. Baby alligators would rather hide or swim away than confront humans, and will only bite when cornered or threatened. However, large crocodiles are large enough and deadly enough to attack and even kill humans, although this is rare.

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If you come across an alligator in the wild, remember – it is illegal to feed any wild alligator. You also shouldn't approach alligators, big or small.

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