Alligator osteoderms: mechanical behavior and hierarchical structure

Mater Sci Eng C Mater Biol Appl. 2014 Feb 1:35:441-8. doi: 10.1016/j.msec.2013.11.024. Epub 2013 Dec 1.


Osteoderms are bony scutes embedded underneath the dermal layers of the skin acting as a protection of the alligator (Archosauria: Crocodylia) internal organs and tissues. Additionally, these scutes function as an aid in temperature regulation. The scutes are inter-linked by fibrous connective tissue. They have properties similar to bone and thus have the necessary toughness to provide protection against predators. The scutes consist of hydroxyapatite and have a porosity of approximately 12%. They have a disc-like morphology with a ridge along the middle of the plate, called the keel; the outer perimeter of the disc has depressions, grooves, and jagged edges which anchor the collagen and act as sutures. Computerized tomography reveals the pattern of elongated pores, which emanate from the keel in a radial pattern. Micro-indentation measurements along the cross-section show a zigzag behavior due to the porosity. Compression results indicate that the axial direction is the strongest (UTS ~67 MPa) and toughest (11 MJ/m(3)); this is the orientation in which they undergo the largest external compression forces from predator teeth. Toughening mechanisms are identified through observation of the damage progression and interpreted in mechanistic terms. They are: flattening of pores, microcrack opening, and microcrack growth and coalescence. Collagen plays an essential role in toughening and plasticity by providing bridges that impede the opening of the cracks and prevent their growth.

Keywords: Alligator; Mechanical properties; Mechanisms; Osteoderms; Scutes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alligators and Crocodiles / anatomy & histology*
  • Alligators and Crocodiles / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Bone and Bones / physiology*
  • Bone and Bones / ultrastructure*
  • Compressive Strength / physiology
  • Elastic Modulus / physiology
  • Hardness / physiology
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Stress, Mechanical