The Loh Down On Science

Whiskers

Studies reveal the secrets of whisker senses.

A perfect mustache for a dash in the trash?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science

and with a look at the world through the eyes of a rat. Or, actually, through its whiskers.

Because rats have poor eyesight, they navigate their dark world of sewers and dumpsters using a specialized sense called the VIBRISSA SYSTEM.

They sweep an area with their whiskers to pick up vibrations from its surfaces. Like harp strings, longer whiskers register low frequency vibrations, shorter ones higher frequencies.

To understand how whiskers "see," Jason Ritt, a neuroscientist at MIT, gave rats several surfaces to investigate. Then he observed them using high- speed video cameras and a computer video analysis program.

Ritt's images revealed that rat whiskers make superfast and complex micromotions called "stick-slip events." They register the tiniest details. In fact, rats' snouts are jammed with nerve endings and much of their brain is devoted to interpreting these micromotions.

The result: an extremely detailed picture of their surroundings--sight unseen.

Because nobody really wants to LOOK at garbage. Sniffing and eating it, okay, but looking. Euuhhhh!


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