Homo sapiens really got the shaft. I just recently found out that not having whiskers is a trait unique to humans (among mammals). Okay so we have opposable thumbs and can grasp tools and this helped us evolve to the point we are at now with a tremendous deal of technology and culture. Big deal. I want a nice set of whiskers that can give me some more tactile sensation to perceive my surroundings with. Mice and other mammals all run around, showing off their flashy whiskers touching objects with them and having a blast. Meanwhile we can’t use our faces to touch things and find out about them: at least people would give you strange looks if they saw you rubbing your face against the stairs to see if you could climb them.
Researchers all over the world have been studying whiskers for many years. They are a much simpler device for interpreting the environment than fingers. Finger have many sensory neurons in them that all work together to tell our brains about what we are touching. Each whisker on the other hand, ends in a single follicle beneath the skin. The single follicle then recognizes the pressure and how much the whisker is being bent and relays the info to the brain. Most rats have 60 whiskers, and the information from all of them combined tells them about the object they are feeling. It is because of these whiskers that mice and rats can find their way through mazes without the use of their eyes. This feat is feasible for a human, but would take much longer by just using our hands to feel the walls.
So the rats whiskers combined act as one finger does on a human. The separate follicles work like the individual sensory neurons in the tip of a finger. Being more spread out than the sensory neurons, the whiskers can give the rat information from a wider range of angles. This also makes them much easier to study: A 3D laser scanner gave a 3D computer model of a rat’s nose and whiskers which helps to map out the morphology of the nose and details of how the whiskers function. Implications of this could be shocking: perhaps in the future we will have whiskered robots that can sense their surroundings and interact accordingly. Maybe I’ll even be able to get some whisker implants in a few years, only time will tell.
Written by: Erik Alvarenga