Hydrodynamic perception in true seals (Phocidae) and eared seals (Otariidae)
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- Hanke, W., Wieskotten, S., Marshall, C. et al. J Comp Physiol A (2013) 199: 421. doi:10.1007/s00359-012-0778-2
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Pinnipeds, that is true seals (Phocidae), eared seals (Otariidae), and walruses (Odobenidae), possess highly developed vibrissal systems for mechanoreception. They can use their vibrissae to detect and discriminate objects by direct touch. At least in Phocidae and Otariidae, the vibrissae can also be used to detect and analyse water movements. Here, we review what is known about this ability, known as hydrodynamic perception, in pinnipeds. Hydrodynamic perception in pinnipeds developed convergently to the hydrodynamic perception with the lateral line system in fish and the sensory hairs in crustaceans. So far two species of pinnipeds, the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) representing the Phocidae and the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) representing the Otariidae, have been studied for their ability to detect local water movements (dipole stimuli) and to follow hydrodynamic trails, that is the water movements left behind by objects that have passed by at an earlier point in time. Both species are highly sensitive to dipole stimuli and can follow hydrodynamic trails accurately. In the individuals tested, California sea lions were clearly more sensitive to dipole stimuli than harbour seals, and harbour seals showed a superior trail following ability as compared to California sea lions. Harbour seals have also been shown to derive additional information from hydrodynamic trails, such as motion direction, size and shape of the object that caused the trail (California sea lions have not yet been tested). The peculiar undulated shape of the harbour seals’ vibrissae appears to play a crucial role in trail following, as it suppresses self-generated noise while the animal is swimming.