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Active touch sensing in pinnipeds

Milne, Alyxandra Olivia (2019) Active touch sensing in pinnipeds. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

Active touch sensing in humans is characterised by making purposive movements with their fingertips. These movements are task-specific to maximise the relevant information gathered from an object. In whisker-touch sensing, previous research has suggested that whisker movements are purposive, but no one has ever examined task-specific whisker movements in any animal. Pinnipeds are whisker specialists, with long, mobile, sensitive whiskers and diverse whisker morphologies. The aim of this PhD is to investigate active touch sensing in Pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walrus), by: i) describing whisker morphology; ii) comparing and quantifying whisker movements; and iii) characterising task-dependency of whisker movements during texture, size and luminance discrimination tasks. Pinnipeds with long, numerous whiskers, such as California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) and Stellar sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) have larger infraorbital foramen (IOF) sizes and therefore, more sensitive whiskers. The IOF being a small hole in the skull, allowing the infraorbital nerve (ION) to pass through, which supplies sensation to the whiskers. Comparing whisker movements in Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), California sea lions and Pacific walrus (Odobenidae rosmarus), showed these species all protracted their whiskers forwards and oriented their head towards a moving fish stimulus. However, California sea lions moved their whiskers more than the other species, and independently of the head. Due to the movement capabilities and sensitivity of whiskers in California sea lions, this species was used to investigate whether whiskers can be moved in a task-specific way. Results suggested that California sea lions make task-specific movements, by feeling around the edge of different-sized shapes, and focussing and spreading their whiskers on the centre of different-textured shapes. Therefore, California sea lion whiskers are controlled like a true active touch sensory system, similar to human fingertips. I suggest that active touch sensing is likely to efficiently guide foraging and prey capture in dark, murky waters in these animals. Moreover, the complexity of California sea lion whisker movements and their subsequent behaviours makes them a good candidate from which to further investigate animal decision-making, perception and cognition.

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