What Are the Whiskers for on an Animal’s Face?
The whiskers on an animal’s face are organs of touch. They help the animal sense what’s going on around it. Scientists call whiskers vibrissae (vi-BRIS-see). Vibrissae grow in various places on most mammals, including all primates except humans. Those most frequently studied are the facial or mystacial vibrissae.
Whiskers are sensory in nature and are rooted much deeper than normal hair. They can sense distance and space, and they feel through vibration. These long, sensitive hairs are most helpful to animals that prowl about in dark places.
A cat’s whiskers brush against the objects the cat might not see as it hunts at night. Whiskers help some animals find food. The whiskers on a seal’s face are helpful in detecting fish in dark or cloudy water. And the thick whiskers on a walrus’s upper lip help it to feel for clams in the ocean bottom.
In the context of the vibrissal system, we are only just beginning to piece together descriptions of how, and in what contexts, animals use their whiskers. Even less is known about the function of vibrissae, beyond the obvious intuition that whiskers are ‘for touch’ just as the eyes are ‘for sight’.