Marine Mammal Care Center
Los Angeles

Science Corner – Vibrissa

WhiskerPic

Vibrissa. From the Latin “vibrio” meaning to vibrate or move. Vibrissae (plural), commonly called whiskers, are specialized hairs that are often used by mammals as tactile organs. The name whiskers comes from the term “whisking” which describes the movement some mammals employ when using their whiskers. While the whisker itself doesn’t contain any nerves, the follicle in which the whisker “sits” is filled with many sensory nerves. Some pinniped vibrissae may have up to ten times more sensory nerves than vibrissae of terrestrial mammals.

Vibrissae are commonly found in several locations on the head and face of pinnipeds. Mystacial whiskers are located on either side of the snout, superciliary or supraorbital whiskers are found above the eyes, and rhinal whiskers are at the front of the snout near the nose.

Vibrissae play an important role in social interaction and communication (whisker position may indicate alertness–pointing forward– or aggression–flat against the snout), navigation, and as sensory organs. The pinniped amphibious lifestyle may have precluded the evolutionary development of echolocation. Instead, pinnipeds developed an acute sensory system of which vibrissae play an important role.

All pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses) have vibrissae. Vibrissae come in different lengths and shapes. Sea lion whiskers are smooth while whiskers of many seal species have a corrugated or wavy shape from base to tip. Most phocids (true or earless seals) possess wavy mystacial vibrissae. Researchers hypothesize that the wavy shape may help in drag reduction as the animal swims through water or aid foraging in reduced visibility settings by allowing the seal to sense vortex trails created by swimming prey.

This information represents just the tip of the vibrissae iceberg. Please contact us by email at mar3ine@gmail.com if you’re interested in digging deeper into this subject or if you have a topic you’d like us to cover. Put “Science Corner” in the subject box of your email.

References:

  • Ginter, Carly C., Frank F. Fish, and Christopher D. Marshall. Morphological analysis of the bumpy profile of phocid vibrissae. Marine Mammal Science, 26(3), (2010):733-743.
  • Riedman, Marianne. The Pinnipeds: Seals, Sea Lions and Walruses. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990.
  • Schusterman, Ronald J., David Kastak, David H. Levenson, Colleen J. Reichmuth, and Brandon L. Southall. Why pinnipeds don’t echolocate. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. Volume 107, Issue 4, (2000): 2256-2264.

Written by Chris Huff

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