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Sea lions have some of the most sensitive whiskers in the animal kingdom. (National Geographic Stock / Alamy)

The Wonders of Whiskers

Scientists investigate how animals use whiskers

What would it be like to have fingers growing out of your face? It sounds strange, but for animals with whiskers, that’s what life is like! Rats, seals, and other critters use their whiskers the way we use our fingertips. Whiskers help animals explore their environment through touch. They also help animals navigate their habitats and find food. Scientists are trying to learn more about whiskers. This research may even help humans.

FEELING SENSITIVE

A whisker is actually an extra long, stiff hair. Humans and other apes don’t have them. (Mustaches don’t count!) But almost all other mammals do. A rat, for example, has about 60 whiskers—30 on each side of its snout. To feel an object, a rat brushes the tips of its whiskers across it. This motion is called whisking.

“We think that’s an important part of how they sense the world,” says Tony Prescott, a British brain scientist. He studies how animals use their whiskers.

At the base of each whisker are thousands of nerve endings, which are like wires that send signals to the brain. The brain uses information from the whiskers to form a picture of the animal’s surroundings. Rats, for example, can find openings to crawl through even in the dark.

Rats’ whiskers are so sensitive that they can tell whether a surface is smooth, bumpy, hard, or soft. Prescott thinks this helps them find food.

TOP-NOTCH WHISKERS

Many other animals, from cats and dogs to bats and walruses, also have whiskers. But some of the most impressive whiskers belong to seals.

With the help of a harbor seal named Henry, scientists in Germany are learning what these amazing whiskers can do. In one experiment, the scientists covered Henry’s eyes and ears. He could use only his whiskers to sense the water around him.

When the researchers moved a fake fish through the water, Henry’s whiskers could feel the movement 30 seconds after the fish had passed by. He even knew the object’s size and shape and what direction it went in. Seals most likely use this ability to hunt down the biggest and tastiest fish in murky water.

WHISKER BOT

Whiskers are even the inspiration for new human tools. Prescott is helping build a robot inspired by the whiskery snout of an animal called a shrew.

Shrews are small mammals that use their whiskers to find insect meals at night. Prescott’s Shrewbot has imitation whiskers that brush against things. When the whiskers feel an object, sensors send signals to a computer. In the future, robots like Shrewbot could help firefighters explore smoke-filled buildings where it’s too hard to see.

“If we can understand how animals’ whiskers detect things in the environment,” Prescott says, “we can build robots that have a similar sense of touch.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of SuperScience. For more from SuperScience, click here.

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