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Whisker touch sensing guides locomotion in small, quadrupedal mammals

Grant, RA and Breakell, V and Prescott, TJ (2018) Whisker touch sensing guides locomotion in small, quadrupedal mammals. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 285 (1880). ISSN 0962-8452

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Abstract

All small mammals have prominent facial whiskers that they employ as tactile sensors to guide navigation and foraging in complex habitats. Nocturnal, arboreal mammals tend to have the longest and most densely packed whiskers, and semi-aquatic mammals have the most sensitive. Here we present evidence to indicate that many small mammals use their whiskers to tactually guide safe foot positioning. Specifically, in 11, small, non-flying mammal species, we demonstrate that forepaw placement always falls within the ground contact zone of the whisker field and that forepaw width is always smaller than whisker span. We also demonstrate commonalities of whisker scanning movements (whisking) and elements of active control, associated with increasing contact with objects of interest, across multiple small mammal species that have previously only been shown in common laboratory animals. Overall, we propose that guiding locomotion, alongside environment exploration, is a common function of whisker touch sensing in small, quadrupedal mammals.

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