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Good Vibrations: the evolution of whisking in small mammals

Muchlinski, MN and Wible, JR and Corfe, Ian and Sullivan, Matthew and Grant, RA (2018) Good Vibrations: the evolution of whisking in small mammals. Anatomical Record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology. ISSN 1932-8486

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Abstract

While most mammals have whiskers, some tactile specialists - mainly small, nocturnal and arboreal species - can actively move their whiskers in a symmetrical, cyclic movement called whisking. Whisking enables mammals to rapidly, tactually scan their environment in order to efficiently guide locomotion and foraging in complex habitats. The muscle architecture that enables whisking is preserved from marsupials to primates, prompting researchers to suggest that a common ancestor might have had moveable whiskers. Studying the evolution of whisker touch sensing is difficult, and we suggest that measuring an aspect of skull morphology that correlates with whisking would enable comparisons between extinct and extant mammals. We find that whisking mammals have larger infraorbital foramen (IOF) areas, which indicates larger infraorbital nerves and an increase in sensory acuity. While this relationship is quite variable and IOF area cannot be used to solely predict the presence of whisking, whisking mammals all have large IOF areas. Generally, this pattern holds true regardless of an animal’s substrate preferences or activity patterns. Data from fossil mammals and ancestral character state reconstruction and tracing techniques for extant mammals suggest that whisking is not the ancestral state for therian mammals. Instead, whisking appears to have evolved independently as many as seven times across the clades Marsupialia, Afrosoricida, Eulipotyphla and Rodentia, with Xenarthra the only placental superordinal clade lacking whisking species. However, the term whisking only captures symmetrical and rhythmic movements of the whiskers, rather than all possible whisker movements, and early mammals may still have had moveable whiskers.

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