Original Paper

Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 199, Issue 6, pp 521-533

First online:

Vibrissal touch sensing in the harbor seal (Phoca vitulina): how do seals judge size?

  • Robyn GrantAffiliated withActive Touch Laboratory, University of SheffieldDivision of Biology and Conservation Ecology, Manchester Metropolitan University
  • , Sven WieskottenAffiliated withMarine Science Center, University of Rostock
  • , Nina WengstAffiliated withMarine Science Center, University of Rostock
  • , Tony PrescottAffiliated withActive Touch Laboratory, University of Sheffield
  • , Guido DehnhardtAffiliated withMarine Science Center, University of Rostock Email author 

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“Whisker specialists” such as rats, shrews, and seals actively employ their whiskers to explore their environments and extract object properties such as size, shape, and texture. It has been suggested that whiskers could be used to discriminate between different sized objects in one of two ways: (i) to use whisker positions, such as angular position, spread or amplitude to approximate size; or (ii) to calculate the number of whiskers that contact an object. This study describes in detail how two adult harbor seals use their whiskers to differentiate between three sizes of disk. The seals judged size very fast, taking <400 ms. In addition, they oriented their smaller, most rostral, ventral whiskers to the disks, so that more whiskers contacted the surface, complying to a maximal contact sensing strategy. Data from this study supports the suggestion that it is the number of whisker contacts that predict disk size, rather than how the whiskers are positioned (angular position), the degree to which they are moved (amplitude) or how spread out they are (angular spread).


Whiskers Haptic Active touch Aquatic Maximal contact