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Whisker touch guides canopy exploration in a nocturnal, arboreal rodent, the Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)

Grant, RA and Arkley, K and Tiktak, G and Breakell, V and Prescott, TJ (2017) Whisker touch guides canopy exploration in a nocturnal, arboreal rodent, the Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius). Journal of Comparative Physiology A. ISSN 0340-7594

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Abstract

Dormouse numbers are declining in the UK due to habitat loss and fragmentation. We know that dormice are nocturnal, arboreal, and avoid crossing open spaces between habitats, yet how they navigate around their canopy is unknown. As other rodents use whisker touch sensing to navigate and explore their environment, this study investigates whether Hazel dormice (Muscardinus avellanarius) employ their whiskers to cross between habitats. We analysed high-speed video footage of dormice exploring freely in flat and climbing arenas in near darkness and using infrared light illumination. We confirm that, like rats and mice, dormice move their whiskers back and forth continuously (~10 Hz) in a motion called whisking and recruit them to explore small gaps (<10 cm) by increasing the amplitude and frequency of whisking and also the asymmetry of movement between the left and right whisker fields. When gaps between platforms are larger than 10–15 cm, dormice spend more time travelling on the floor. These findings suggest that dormice can actively and purposively move their whiskers to gather relevant information from their canopy at night. As this species is vulnerable to threats on the ground, we also provide evidence that joining habitat patches between dormouse populations is important for promoting natural behaviours and movement between patches.

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