(Nature Publishing Group, 2017-08-21)
Murphy, Christin T.; Reichmuth, Colleen; Eberhardt, William C.; Calhoun, Benton H.; Mann, David A.
Although it is known that seals can use their whiskers (vibrissae) to extract relevant information from complex underwater flow fields, the underlying functioning of the system and the signals received by the sensors are poorly understood. Here we show that the vibrations of seal whiskers may provide information about hydrodynamic events and enable the sophisticated wake-tracking abilities of these animals. We developed a miniature accelerometer tag to study seal whisker movement in situ. We tested the ability of the tag to measure vibration in excised whiskers in a flume in response to laminar flow and disturbed flow. We then trained a seal to wear the tag and follow an underwater hydrodynamic trail to measure the whisker signals available to the seal. The results showed that whiskers vibrated at frequencies of 100–300 Hz, with a dynamic response. These measurements are the first to capture the incoming signals received by the vibrissae of a live seal and show that there are prominent signals at frequencies where the seal tactogram shows good sensitivity. Tapping into the mechanoreceptive interface between the animal and the environment may help to decipher the functional basis of this extraordinary hydrodynamic detection ability.