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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reader Question: How Do Crocodiles Digest Entire Animals?

Reader Ken McMurdy of Mahwah, NJ was interested in the fact that our stomachs contain hydrochloric acid. But, he asks, what about the stomachs of animals, like alligators and crocodiles, that can digest the entire bodies of their prey?

Good question! Gators and crocs, as it turns out, have pretty amazing digestive systems. And that's a good thing, because they eat huge meals, weighing about one-fourth of their body mass! If you weigh 80 pounds, that's like eating 20 pounds of food, all at one sitting!

First of all, their stomachs are divided into two parts. These critters actually swallow small stones, which end in in the first part of the stomach. These little rocks are called gastroliths (Greek for "stomach stones"), and they help to break the food up into smaller pieces. The second part of the stomach contains hydrochloric acid, but it's about ten times more concentrated than the acid in human tummies. In fact, it's the most acidic gastric (stomach) juice of any animal! This acid can dissolve teeth, bones, and feathers (but not hair!). Also, when alligators and crocodiles are digesting food, extra blood flows to their stomach to help move the meal along.

But even with the stomach stones, supercharged gastric acid, and extra blood, it takes 10 to 20 days for one of these animals to completely digest a meal! In humans, this process takes 12 to 24 hours. So the next time you eat too much, and don't feel too good because of it, be happy you're not a gator or croc!

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