Background: The nasal cavity of all vertebrates houses multiple chemosensors, either innervated by the Ist (olfactory) or the Vth (trigeminal) cranial nerve. Various types of receptor cells are present, either segregated in different compartments (e.g. in rodents) or mingled in one epithelium (e.g. fish). In addition, solitary chemosensory cells have been reported for several species. Alligators which seek their prey both above and under water have only one nasal compartment. Information about their olfactory epithelium is limited. Since alligators seem to detect both volatile and water-soluble odour cues, I tested whether different sensory cell types are present in the olfactory epithelium.
Results: Electron microscopy and immunocytochemistry were used to examine the sensory epithelium of the nasal cavity of the American alligator. Almost the entire nasal cavity is lined with olfactory (sensory) epithelium. Two types of olfactory sensory neurons are present. Both types bear cilia as well as microvilli at their apical endings and express the typical markers for olfactory neurons. The density of these olfactory neurons varies along the nasal cavity. In addition, solitary chemosensory cells innervated by trigeminal nerve fibres, are intermingled with olfactory sensory neurons. Solitary chemosensory cells express components of the PLC-transduction cascade found in solitary chemosensory cells in rodents.
Conclusion: The nasal cavity of the American alligator contains two different chemosensory systems incorporated in the same sensory epithelium: the olfactory system proper and solitary chemosensory cells. The olfactory system contains two morphological distinct types of ciliated olfactory receptor neurons.