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Ecomorphology reveals Euler spiral of mammalian whiskers

Dougill, G and Starostin, EL and Milne, AO and van der Heijden, GHM and Goss, VGA and Grant, RA (2020) Ecomorphology reveals Euler spiral of mammalian whiskers. Journal of Morphology. ISSN 0362-2525

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Abstract

© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Morphology published by Wiley Periodicals LLC. Whiskers are present in many species of mammals. They are specialised vibrotactile sensors that sit within strongly innervated follicles. Whisker size and shape will affect the mechanical signals that reach the follicle, and hence the information that reaches the brain. However, whisker size and shape have not been quantified across mammals before. Using a novel method for describing whisker curvature, this study quantifies whisker size and shape across 19 mammalian species. We find that gross two-dimensional whisker shape is relatively conserved across mammals. Indeed, whiskers are all curved, tapered rods that can be summarised by Euler spiral models of curvature and linear models of taper, which has implications for whisker growth and function. We also observe that aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals have relatively thicker, stiffer, and more highly tapered whiskers than arboreal and terrestrial species. In addition, smaller mammals tend to have relatively long, slender, flexible whiskers compared to larger species. Therefore, we propose that whisker morphology varies between larger aquatic species, and smaller scansorial species. These two whisker morphotypes are likely to induce quite different mechanical signals in the follicle, which has implications for follicle anatomy as well as whisker function.

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