The way rats use their whiskers is more similar to how humans use their hands and fingers than previously thought, new research from the University of Sheffield has found.
Rats deliberately change how they sense their environment using their facial whiskers depending on whether the environment is novel, if there is a risk of collision and whether or not they can see where they are going.
Exploring rats move their long facial whiskers back and forth continuously while they are moving a behaviour called "whisking".
Scientists have known for a long time that movement of the whiskers provides these animals with a sense of touch that allows them to move around easily in the dark.
However, until now they did not know to what extent animals were able to deliberately control their whisker movement.
Academics from the Active Touch Laboratory in the University's Department of Psychology used high-speed videography to study animals that had been trained over several days to run circuits for food.
By putting them in different scenarios including putting unexpected obstacles in their way and removing visual cues the team discovered strong evidence the creatures moved their whiskers in a purposeful way to safely navigate the course.
The study found that as animals got used to their environment, they moved quicker and altered their facial whisker movements switching from broad exploratory whisker sweeps directed at nearby surfaces, such as the floor, to pushing their whisker forwards in order to detect obstacles and avoid collisions.
In environments where they were more likely to collide with objects, and without access to visual cues, animals moved more slowly but pushed their whiskers forward further. This suggests that they were aware on the increased risk of collisions and were acting more cautiously accordingly.
Professor Tony Prescott, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at
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University of Sheffield