The earliest mammals were nocturnal, and tree-living. In order to successfully move around and thrive in this challenging environment these animals needed to effectively integrate information from multiple senses -- sight, sound, smell, and touch. Facial whiskers provided mammals with a new tactile sense not available to reptiles that could help them to get around in the dark.
In addition to continuing to investigate the similarities and differences between rodents and marsupials, the team is also using these insights from biological whisker sensing to develop animal-like robots that can use artificial whiskers to navigate without vision. These robots could have applications in search-and-rescue, particularly in environments, such as disaster sites, where vision is compromised by smoke or dust.
Professor Tony Prescott said: "This latest research suggests that alongside becoming warm-blooded, giving birth to live young, and having an enlarged brain, the emergence of a new tactile sense based on moveable facial whiskers was an important step along the evolutionary path to modern mammals. Although humans no longer have moveable whiskers they were a critical feature of our early mammalian ancestors."
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University of Sheffield