Whiskers essential in guiding the movements of small mammals

Dr Robyn Grant analysed the whisker field and footprints of 11 different species

Diagram of traced footprints and a projection of their positioning on the whisker field

Diagram of traced footprints and a projection of their positioning on the whisker field

Whiskers are essential for guiding exploration and navigation in small mammals, new research at Manchester Metropolitan University suggests.

The new study published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B, has looked at the whisker movements of 11 species of small mammals – the first study to consider whisker movements and control in a range of species.

Lead Researcher Dr Robyn Grant, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Physiology and Behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan, used a high-speed, high-resolution video camera to record and analyse whisker movements and foot positions of a variety of nocturnal, arboreal and semi-aquatic mammals on a flat and inclined surface.

Whisker movements

She said: “Whiskers guide behaviour such as navigation, locomotion, exploration, hunting and social touch. Most small mammals move whiskers in a bilateral, cyclic motion called whisking – one of the fastest movements that mammals can make. In this study, all but one of the species analysed used this movement.

“Whisking is thought to enable animals to sample the area they are about to walk in to, and may be an essential movement in guiding climbing in complex environments such as trees and hedgerows.”

Dr Grant worked on the study in collaboration with Vicki Breakell from The Wildwood Trust in Kent, and Prof Tony J. Prescott, Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield. 

The researchers analysed the ways each mammal used their whiskers, and although they may have moved them in different ways, the researchers found each mammal used their whiskers for the same reason.

Foot positioning

Dr Grant added: “Through analysing the videos of all these animals, we found that whilst moving around, the forepaw of each of the species always fell within the zone the whiskers had previously scanned, and that the forepaw width was always smaller than the whisker span.

“This data demonstrates that many small mammals use their whiskers to tactually guide safe foot positioning and suggests that whiskers are likely to be functional and important in many small mammals, especially for guiding quadrupedal locomotion.

“Overall, we propose that guiding locomotion, along with environment exploration, might be common functions of whisker touch sensing in small non-flying mammals.”

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