Rats purposefully use their whiskers in different ways to help navigate in the dark
- Study finds rats use their whiskers in a similar way to how humans use their hands and fingers
- High-speed videography shows rats move their whiskers in purposeful way to safely navigate different courses
The way rats use their whiskers is more similar to how humans use their hands and fingers than previously thought, new research from the University of Sheffield has found.
Rats deliberately change how they sense their environment using their facial whiskers depending on whether the environment is novel, if there is a risk of collision and whether or not they can see where they are going.
Exploring rats move their long facial whiskers back and forth continuously while they are moving – a behaviour called “whisking”.
Scientists have known for a long time that movement of the whiskers provides these animals with a sense of touch that allows them to move around easily in the dark.
However, until now they did not know to what extent animals were able to deliberately control their whisker movement.
Academics from the Active Touch Laboratory in the University’s Department of Psychology used high-speed videography to study animals that had been trained over several days to run circuits for food.
By putting them in different scenarios – including putting unexpected obstacles in their way and removing visual cues – the team discovered strong evidence the creatures moved their whiskers in a purposeful way to safely navigate the course.
The study found that as animals got used to their environment, they moved quicker and altered their facial whisker movements – switching from broad exploratory whisker sweeps directed at nearby surfaces, such as the floor, to pushing their whisker forwards in order to detect obstacles and avoid collisions.
In environments where they were more likely to collide with objects, and without access to visual cues, animals moved more slowly but pushed their whiskers forward further. This suggests that they were aware on the increased risk of collisions and were acting more cautiously accordingly.
Professor Tony Prescott, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, said: “A person moving around in the dark would likely use their hand and fingers to detect objects and obstacles in order to avoid banging into things. In a familiar environment, such as their own home, they might move faster pushing their hands out in front of them in case of unexpected collisions.
“This new research show that rats do much the same thing but using their facial whiskers. That is, they purposefully use their whisker to detect nearby objects and surfaces when moving slowly in unfamiliar environments, and push them out in front of themselves, to avoid collisions, when the environment is familiar and they want to move more quickly.
“All mammals except humans use facial whiskers as touch sensors. In humans we seem to have replaced this sense, in part, by being able to use our hand and fingers to feel our way.
“The rat puts its whiskers where it thinks it will get the most useful information, just as we do with our fingertips."
The University of Sheffield
With nearly 25,000 of the brightest students from 117 countries coming to learn alongside 1,209 of the world’s best academics, it is clear why the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading universities. Staff and students at Sheffield are committed to helping discover and understand the causes of things - and propose solutions that have the power to transform the world we live in.
A member of the Russell Group, the University of Sheffield has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance.
In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
One of the markers of a leading university is the quality of its alumni and Sheffield boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students. Its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, Siemens, Yorkshire Water and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.
For further information please contact:
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046