How Do Whiskers Work?

You may see them every day without giving them a second thought, but what exactly are whiskers and how do they work?

Whiskers are modified hairs called vibrissae that form a specialized touch organ. The vibrissae, which grow on an animal’s muzzle, above its eyes, and on its front limbs, penetrate deeper into the body than the animal’s fur. At the end of each whisker is a proprioceptor that transmits tactile information to the nervous system and brain so that the animal knows how to respond to different situations. Whiskers are highly sensitive to any changes within the environment.

Mountain lions (Puma concolor) and bobcats (Lynx rufus) rely on their whiskers for movement and hunting. Whiskers help to gauge distance — which comes in handy for jumping, and for determining whether they can fit into tight places. These specialized hairs even sense vibrations in the air when pursuing prey. When cats hunt, their whiskers shift forward to better detect movement. In essence, whiskers provide cats with an effective guidance and tracking system!

Wild cats are not the only animals with whiskers though. Almost all mammals have whiskers. How do you think other animals like bears and coyotes benefit from these specialized hairs?

Denise Peterson

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