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Comparing vibrissal morphology and infraorbital foramen area in pinnipeds

Milne, Alyx O, Muchlinski, Magdalena N, Orton, Llwyd D, Sullivan, Matthew S and Grant, Robyn A (2022) Comparing vibrissal morphology and infraorbital foramen area in pinnipeds. The Anatomical Record, 305 (3). pp. 556-567. ISSN 1932-8486

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Pinniped vibrissae are well-adapted to sensing in an aquatic environment, by being morphologically diverse and more sensitive than those of terrestrial species. However, it is both challenging and time-consuming to measure vibrissal sensitivity in many species. In terrestrial species, the infraorbital foramen (IOF) area is associated with vibrissal sensitivity and increases with vibrissal number. While pinnipeds are thought to have large IOF areas, this has not yet been systematically measured before. We investigated vibrissal morphology, IOF area, and skull size in 16 species of pinniped and 12 terrestrial Carnivora species. Pinnipeds had significantly larger skulls and IOF areas, longer vibrissae, and fewer vibrissae than the other Carnivora species. IOF area and vibrissal number were correlated in Pinnipeds, just as they are in terrestrial mammals. However, despite pinnipeds having significantly fewer vibrissae than other Carnivora species, their IOF area was not smaller, which might be due to pinnipeds having vibrissae that are innervated more. We propose that investigating normalized IOF area per vibrissa will offer an alternative way to approximate gross individual vibrissal sensitivity in pinnipeds and other mammalian species. Our data show that many species of pinniped, and some species of felids, are likely to have strongly innervated individual vibrissae, since they have high values of normalized IOF area per vibrissa. We suggest that species that hunt moving prey items in the dark will have more sensitive and specialized vibrissae, especially as they have to integrate between individual vibrissal signals to calculate the direction of moving prey during hunting.

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