The Sensitivity of a Seal’s Whiskers

Harbor seals and their brethren have a superpower that lets them track their prey even without sight or sound. It’s their whiskers, which are sensitive enough to follow the trail left by a single fish thirty seconds earlier. The secret to the whisker’s sensitivity lies in its shape. Instead of a uniform, circular cross-section, the seal’s whisker is oval-shaped and its width varies along the length in a wavy pattern. So unlike a straight cylinder, which vibrates when towed through water, the seal’s whiskers are unperturbed by their own movement. They shed only weak vortices and do not vibrate as a result.

But, if you expose the whiskers to any external turbulence, like the vortices trailing a fish, the whisker ‘slaloms’ back-and-forth in time with the wake. That motion gets transmitted to the nerves in the seal’s cheek, carrying potential information about both the size and speed of the wake’s originator. Researchers hope similar bio-inspired whiskers could help underwater vehicles track schools of fish or locate underwater drilling leaks. (Image credit: M. Richter; video credit: MIT; research credit: H. Beem and M. Triantafyllou; via the Economist; submitted by Russ A. and Kam-Yung Soh)

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