Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rodent Whiskers

University of Sheffield
Ever notice the whiskers on a rat in the cartoons?  Unlike those of men, they aren't just a fashion statement but serve as their primary tactile organ.  By "whisking" them back and forth they explore objects, lightly touching them, generally without bending the hairs.  The closer they are to the object, the less they move their whiskers.  High-speed video studies from the University of Sheffield have shown they move them over a surface in the same way we use our fingers.*

A new study by the same group has now shown that a South American marsupial which is thought to be related to some of the earliest mammals shows a similar behavior.  It suggests that whisking by these early evolving mammals, which were primarily nocturnal, gave them an important advantage over the more common reptiles of that period.

The team is now developing robots with whiskers that can navigate without vision.  They would have potential in search and rescue operations where smoke and dust precludes vision.  An interesting idea as long as they don't teach them to chew our electrical cords.

How do rats sneak through small spaces?  These and other answers are at
Science Daily 2007

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