Evidence for Functional Groupings of Vibrissae across the Rodent Mystacial Pad

Jennifer A. Hobbs, R. Blythe Towal, Mitra J Z Hartmann*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


During natural exploration, rats exhibit two particularly conspicuous vibrissal-mediated behaviors: they follow along walls, and “dab” their snouts on the ground at frequencies related to the whisking cycle. In general, the walls and ground may be located at any distance from, and at any orientation relative to, the rat’s head, which raises the question of how the rat might determine the position and orientation of these surfaces. Previous studies have compellingly demonstrated that rats can accurately determine the horizontal angle at which a vibrissa first touches an object, and we therefore asked whether this parameter could provide the rat with information about the pitch, distance, and yaw of a surface relative to its head. We used a three-dimensional model of the whisker array to construct mappings between the horizontal angle of contact of each vibrissa and every possible (pitch, distance, and yaw) configuration of the head relative to a flat surface. The mappings revealed striking differences in the patterns of contact for vibrissae in different regions of the array. The exterior (A, D, E) rows provide information about the relative pitch of the surface regardless of distance. The interior (B, C) rows provide distance cues regardless of head pitch. Yaw is linearly correlated with the difference between the number of right and left whiskers touching the surface. Compared to the long reaches that whiskers can make to the side and below the rat, the reachable distance in front of the rat’s nose is relatively small. We confirmed key predictions of these functional groupings in a behavioral experiment that monitored the contact patterns that the vibrissae made with a flat vertical surface. These results suggest that vibrissae in different regions of the array are not interchangeable sensors, but rather functionally grouped to acquire particular types of information about the environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1004109
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Ecology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics

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