Mar. 29, 2002 TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Picture the jaws of a 12-foot alligator clamping down on its prey. Now think of the jolt one would feel by tying a rope to a small pickup truck and trying to hold on after dropping it from the roof of a tall building.
What's the point? Well, a Florida State University researcher has discovered that the strength of the alligator's bite and the jolt one would feel when the truck reached the end of its rope are nearly identical.
"If you were in the jaws of an alligator and trying to get out, it would be like trying to lift a pickup truck off of yourself," said FSU biology Professor Greg Erickson. "It isn't going to happen."
Erickson, an expert in the dentition of crocodilians and dinosaurs, was exploring ways to fund a study into how hard crocodiles bite when a filmmaker asked him last year about doing the research for a show on the so-called SuperCroc, a monster crocodilian that lived 110 million years ago. No one had ever accurately measured the biting strength of crocodiles, and Erickson convinced the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration to fund the study. His research was featured on the National Geographic special "SuperCroc," which aired last December.
At 40 feet long and weighing up to 18,000 pounds, SuperCroc is believed to have eaten dinosaurs unfortunate enough to get trapped in its 6-foot jaws. A French scientist discovered some skull parts of the formally named "Sarcosuchus imperator" in Africa about 40 years ago. Then about two years ago, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno discovered a nearly complete skull and about half of the rest of a SuperCroc in the Sahara Desert.
To get an idea of how the giant crocodilian could hold a struggling dinosaur in its jaws, Erickson and University of Florida zoologist Kent Vliet traveled to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park with a 7-foot-long bite-force measuring pole built by engineers. The farm is the only place on Earth where at least one of every living species of alligator and crocodile can be found.
Erickson, who is also studying the bite force of Tyrannosaurus rex, and Vliet had trouble getting many of the creatures to cooperate. Some of the largest old timers would only give a superficial bite knowing that the metal probe being thrust into their mouth wasn't food. Each alligator or crocodile used for testing also had to be roped and pulled away from the others in their pond, a process that nearly cost some of those assisting in the research a hand or foot.
"It was really dangerous," Erickson said. "This was a case where you had to do a lot of delicate electronic measurements on some pretty unwilling subjects."
Finally, the research team had to weigh each alligator and crocodile after testing its bite. The novelty of picking up a 500-pound crocodile to place it on a scale wore off fast.
"It quickly just became hard work," Erickson said. "There aren't many places to get a really good grip on a crocodile."
After eight days and testing 60 subjects, Erickson and Vliet recorded a bite with 2,125 pounds of force from a 665-pound, 12-foot American alligator. That's a force equal to the weight of a small pickup truck. The biting force of smaller alligators and crocodiles were basically proportional to their size, thus Erickson and Vliet estimated that SuperCroc had about 18,000 pounds of force to hold on to its prey, or about eight and one-half times the force of the 12-foot alligator's bite.
That complete, Erickson and Vliet are about to take their research into a new, and equally dangerous, phase. Late next month they plan to travel to the rivers and lakes of Central Florida to see if the bites of wild alligators are stronger than those in captivity.
Erickson said the research is helping scientists determine how various species of alligators and crocodiles adapt to different eating habits depending on where they live.
"We're trying to understand how their morphological differences allow them to exploit different lifestyles," Erickson said.
His widely publicized research also helps generate interest among young children in the sciences because of their fascination with animals such as dinosaurs and crocodiles, he said.
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