Comparative Analysis of the Morphology and Materials Properties of Pinniped Vibrissae
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Vibrissae (whiskers) are important components of the mammalian tactile sensory system, and primarily function as detectors of environmental vibrotactile cues. Pinnipeds possess the largest and most highly innervated vibrissae among mammals and their vibrissae demonstrate a diversity of shapes and likely mechanical properties. These two characteristics are important for vibrotactile sensory perception. Vibrissae of most phocid seals exhibit a beaded morphology with repeated sequences of crests and troughs along their length. I comparatively characterized differences in vibrissae morphologies among phocid species with a beaded profile, phocid species with a smooth profile, and otariids with a smooth profile using traditional and geometric morphometric methods to test the hypothesis that vibrissal morphologies are species-specific manipulations of a common pattern. The traditional and geometric morphometric datasets were subsequently combined by mathematically scaling each to true rank, followed by a single eigendecomposition. Quadratic discriminant function analysis demonstrated that 79.3, 97.8 and 100% of individuals could be correctly classified to taxon based on vibrissal shape variables in the traditional, geometric and combined morphometric analyses, respectively. At least three separate morphologies were identified since phocids with beaded vibrissae, phocids with smooth vibrissae, and otariids each occupied distinct morphospace in the geometric morphometric and combined data analyses. Another important characteristic that influences the transduction of vibrotactile information to the mechanoreceptors in the follicle-sinus complex is the materials properties of the vibrissae. Vibrissae were modeled as cantilever beams and flexural stiffness (EI) was measured to test the hypotheses that the shape of beaded vibrissae reduces flexural stiffness and that vibrissae are anisotropic (orientations differ in EI). Species were significantly different and smooth vibrissae were generally stiffer than beaded vibrissae. Beaded vibrissae decrease vibrations in flow, which, combined with lower flexural stiffness values, may enhance detection of small changes in flow from swimming prey. The anterior plane of the vibrissae is likely the most biologically significant in tracking hydrodynamic trails but had lower flexural stiffness values than the dorsoventral orientation. There is likely a complex interaction between shape and mechanical properties in pinniped vibrissae but the ecological and functional implications are currently unknown.
Ginter, Carly C. (2011). Comparative Analysis of the Morphology and Materials Properties of Pinniped Vibrissae. Master's thesis, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from