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Rats Rely On Their Whiskers To Maneuver Safely In The Dark

July 8, 2014
Image Credit: Topaz777/Thinkstock.com

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe online

Imagine walking through your living room at midnight after having turned out the lights. Even though it is dark, you almost intuitively know where the wall makes a 90 degree turn yielding to a hallway as your hands reach expectantly for the corner. Now imagine the same scenario in a far less familiar room. Your speed will slow and your hands will move a bit more erratically seeking the comfort of a wall or chair back to guide you safely across the room.

It turns out researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK have discovered that rats use their whiskers in much the same way we humans use our hands for sensing their environment. They can deliberately change the way their whiskers interact based on whether the environment is unknown to them, there is a risk of collision or if they are able to see where they are going.

A behavior known as “whisking” is employed by rats that are exploring a new environment. Whisking is defined as the back and forth continuous movement of the rat’s long facial whiskers while they are in movement.

While scientists have long known a rat’s whiskers are useful in helping the animal to navigate in the dark by providing a sense of touch, it was not known until this most recent study that the rat could manipulate its whisker movement in different situations.

Professor Tony Prescott, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University stated, “This new research show that rats do much the same thing [as humans do with their hands] but using their facial whiskers. That is, they purposefully use their whiskers to detect nearby objects and surfaces when moving slowly in unfamiliar environments, and push them out in front of themselves, to avoid collisions, when the environment is familiar and they want to move more quickly.”

Prescott continued, “All mammals except humans use facial whiskers as touch sensors. In humans we seem to have replaced this sense, in part, by being able to use our hand and fingers to feel our way.

“The rat puts its whiskers where it thinks it will get the most useful information, just as we do with our fingertips.”

The research was conducted by academics from the Active Touch Laboratory in the University’s Deparment of Psychology. They employed the use of high-speed videography to study animals that had been trained over several days to run circuits for food.

Once the initial training of the rats had been completed, the researchers put the rats into different scenarios – including putting unexpected obstacles in their way and removing visual cues. It was due to these environmental changes the team was able to witness strong evidence supporting the fact the rats moved their whiskers in a purposeful way in order to safely navigate the course.

Once the rats became more familiar with the new environment created by the obstacles and removed visual cues, the study noted the animals began to move much more swiftly through the circuit while also altering their facial whisker movements. This alteration of facial whisker movement was represented by less of a broad exploratory whisker sweep directed at nearby surfaces and the floor to pushing their whiskers forward in anticipation of detecting obstacles and enabling them to avoid collisions.

Perhaps most interesting was the fact that when the likelihood of an object collision was greater, the rats moved more slowly but pushed their whiskers to a very forward position. This, says the team, suggests the animals were aware of the increased risk of collision and were therefore acting more cautiously.

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Source: Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe online



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