Can Crocodiles change color?

Many species alter skin color to varying degrees and by different mechanisms. Here, we show that some crocodylians modify skin coloration in response to changing light and environmental conditions. Within the Family, Crocodylidae, all members of the genus Crocodylus lightened substantially when transitioned from dark enclosure to white enclosures, whereas Mecistops and Osteolaemus showed little/no change. The two members of the Family Gavialidae showed an opposite response, lightening under darker conditions, while all member of the Family Alligatoridae showed no changes. Observed color changes were rapid and reversible, occurring within 60–90 minutes. The response is visually-mediated and modulated by serum α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH), resulting in redistribution of melanosomes within melanophores. Injection of crocodiles with α-MSH caused the skin to lighten. These results represent a novel description of color change in crocodylians, and have important phylogenetic implications. The data support the inclusion of the Malayan gharial in the Family Gavialidae, and the shift of the African slender-snouted crocodile from the genus Crocodylus to the monophyletic genus Mecistops.

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