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What can whiskers tell us about mammalian evolution, behaviour, and ecology?

Grant, RA and Goss, VGA (2021) What can whiskers tell us about mammalian evolution, behaviour, and ecology? Mammal Review. ISSN 0305-1838


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Most mammals have whiskers; however, nearly everything we know about whiskers derives from just a handful of species, including laboratory rats Rattus norvegicus and mice Mus musculus, as well as some species of pinniped and marsupial. We explore the extent to which the knowledge of the whisker system from a handful of species applies to mammals generally. This will help us understand whisker evolution and function, in order to gain more insights into mammalian behaviour and ecology. This review is structured around Tinbergen’s four questions, since this method is an established, comprehensive, and logical approach to studying behaviour. We ask: how do whiskers work, develop, and evolve? And what are they for? While whiskers are all slender, curved, tapered, keratinised hairs that transmit vibrotactile information, we show that there are marked differences between species with respect to whisker arrangement, numbers, length, musculature, development, and growth cycles. The conservation of form and a common muscle architecture in mammals suggests that early mammals had whiskers. Whiskers may have been functional even in therapsids. However, certain extant mammalian species are equipped with especially long and sensitive whiskers, in particular nocturnal, arboreal species, and aquatic species, which live in complex environments and hunt moving prey. Knowledge of whiskers and whisker use can guide us in developing conservation protocols and designing enriched enclosures for captive mammals. We suggest that further comparative studies, embracing a wider variety of mammalian species, are required before one can make large-scale predictions relating to evolution and function of whiskers. More research is needed to develop robust techniques to enhance the welfare and conservation of mammals.

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