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Whiskers Act Like Finger Tips

February 2007 - Research by Dr Tony Prescott and colleagues from the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, has found significant parallels between sophisticated use of facial whiskers by rats and fingertips by humans.

Researchers explain that understanding what guides whisker movements during free natural behaviour by rats has been limited largely by the difficulty of making accurate observations. However, this study used high-speed video and recordings of muscle activity to study how `whisking´ behaviour changes upon contact with an object.

They explain that rats are tactile animals using facial whiskers as their primary sense, sweeping or whisking them backwards and forwards numerous times every second. They found that, like finger tips, these movements are actively controlled. Whiskers near a point of contact move less; those away from it move more. This allows a rat to `home-in´ on objects in their environment while ensuring gentle contact.

Tony Prescott said:

"If you are exploring a surface with your hand you will control the position of your fingertips so as to get as much information as possible from each touch. We are discovering that rats do something very similar with their whiskers. That is, they adjust the movements of their whiskers on a moment-by-moment basis using information from each contact to decide how best to position their whiskers for the next one."

The researchers are currently working in association with Bristol Robotics Laboratory to produce a robot with an artificial whisker sense both to increase understanding of rat whisking behaviour and to aid development of artificial touch systems.

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