Crocodylians undergo substantial increases in size during ontogeny. The American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, in particular traverses nearly four orders of body mass between hatching and senescence. Accompanying such changes are modifications in rostrodental morphology and feeding capabilities that facilitate major shifts in diet. How such anatomical changes relate to ecological niche occupation across sizes is not well understood. In this study, we focused on the effects of ontogenetic changes on the force-generating mechanisms for jaw closure to assess the impacts of scaling on feeding biomechanics. We developed dissection-based, musculoskeletal models of maximum bite-force generation throughout ontogeny and compared and tested their veracity with data from an A. mississippiensis developmental series, for which bite forces were directly measured. Through examinations of the scaling patterns within the parameters of our models, we discuss how muscle pennation and positive allometry in the American alligator jaw adductor system facilitate capture strategies and oral processing of prey, and contribute to developmental niche shifts in this large-bodied taxon. On the basis of conservation of the crocodylian jaw adductor system, we argue that our findings are broadly applicable to crown Crocodylia and reflect an important, but often overlooked, aspect of the crocodylian feeding ecomorphology: littoral, sit-and-wait predation is enhanced by posteroventrally displaced, exceptionally large, and forceful ventral pterygoideus muscles, in particular. Future studies on the ontogeny and evolution of feeding in crocodylians should not neglect the functional and ecological implications of these muscles' contributions to diet.
- bite force
- feeding ecology