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Whiskers marked milestone in evolution of mammals from reptiles
Date:11/10/2011

Research from the University of Sheffield comparing rats and mice with their distance relatives the marsupial, suggests that moveable whiskers were an important milestone in the evolution of mammals from reptiles.

Using high-speed digital video recording and automatic tracking, the research team, which was led by Professor Tony Prescott from the University's Department of Psychology, have shed light on how rodents such as mice and rats move their whiskers back-and-forth at high speed and in varying ways to actively sense the environment around them in a behaviour known as whisking. Whisking allows mice or rats to accurately determine the position, shape and texture of objects, make rapid and accurate decisions about objects, and then use the information to build environmental maps.

When running in a straight line, rats and mice move their whiskers back-and-forth the same amount on both sides. However when turning, they bias their whisker movements in the direction of the turn, and when the whiskers on one side of the head contact an object, those on the opposite side sweep round to gather more information. These active sensing strategies boost the information gained by the whiskers helping the animals to better understand their world through touch.

In their latest research, the team have shown that whisking like that of rodents, using these active sensing strategies, is also seen in a small South American marsupial - the grey short-tailed opossum. This animal has many similarities to an early mammal that would have lived more than 125 million years ago; that is, around the same time that the evolutionary lines leading to modern rodents and marsupials diverged.

This evidence suggests that some of the first mammals may also have whisked like a modern mouse or rat, and that the appearance of moveable whiskers was pivotal in the evolution of mammals from reptiles. The research is published in Philosophical Transactions
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Contact: Shemina Davis, Media Relations Officer
shemina.davis@sheffield.ac.uk
01-142-225-339
University of Sheffield
Source:Eurekalert

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