During exploratory behavior, rats brush and tap their whiskers against objects, and the mechanical signals so generated constitute the primary sensory variables upon which these animals base their vibrissotactile perception of the world. To date, however, we lack a general dynamic model of the vibrissa that includes the effects of inertia, damping, and collisions. We simulated vibrissal dynamics to compute the time-varying forces and bending moment at the vibrissa base during both noncontact (free-air) whisking and whisking against an object (collision). Results show the following: (1) during noncontact whisking, mechanical signals contain components at both the whisking frequency and also twice the whisking frequency (the latter could code whisking speed); (2) when rats whisk rhythmically against an object, the intrinsic dynamics of the vibrissa can be as large asmanyof the mechanical effects of the collision, however, the axial force could still generate responses that reliably indicate collision based on thresholding; and (3) whisking velocity will have only a small effect on the transient response generated during a whisker-object collision. Instead, the transient response will depend in large part on how the rat chooses to decelerate its vibrissae after the collision. The model allows experimentalists to estimate error bounds on quasi-static descriptions of vibrissal shape, and its predictions can be used to bound realistic expectations from neurons that code vibrissal sensing. We discuss the implications of these results under the assumption that primary sensory neurons of the trigeminal ganglion are sensitive to various combinations of mechanical signals.
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