Mechanical responses of rat vibrissae to airflow

Yan S W Yu, Matthew M. Graff, Mitra J Z Hartmann*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The survival of many animals depends in part on their ability to sense the flow of the surrounding fluid medium. To date, however, little is known about how terrestrial mammals sense airflow direction or speed. The present work analyzes the mechanical response of isolated rat macrovibrissae (whiskers) to airflow to assess their viability as flow sensors. Results show that the whisker bends primarily in the direction of airflow and vibrates around a new average position at frequencies related to its resonant modes. The bending direction is not affected by airflow speed or by geometric properties of the whisker. In contrast, the bending magnitude increases strongly with airflow speed and with the ratio of the whisker's arc length to base diameter. To a much smaller degree, the bending magnitude also varies with the orientation of the whisker's intrinsic curvature relative to the direction of airflow. These results are used to predict the mechanical responses of vibrissae to airflow across the entire array, and to show that the rat could actively adjust the airflow data that the vibrissae acquire by changing the orientation of its whiskers. We suggest that, like the whiskers of pinnipeds, the macrovibrissae of terrestrial mammals are multimodal sensors - able to sense both airflow and touch - and that they may play a particularly important role in anemotaxis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)937-948
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016


  • Anemotaxic behavior
  • Anemotaxis
  • Flow-sensing
  • Trigeminal
  • Whisker
  • Wind
  • Wind following

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science

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