Quantifying the three-dimensional facial morphology of the laboratory rat with a focus on the vibrissae

Hayley M. Belli, Chris S. Bresee, Matthew M. Graff, Mitra J.Z. Hartmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The morphology of an animal's face will have large effects on the sensory information it can acquire. Here we quantify the arrangement of cranial sensory structures of the rat, with special emphasis on the mystacial vibrissae (whiskers). Nearly all mammals have vibrissae, which are generally arranged in rows and columns across the face. The vibrissae serve a wide variety of important behavioral functions, including navigation, climbing, wake following, anemotaxis, and social interactions. To date, however, there are few studies that compare the morphology of vibrissal arrays across species, or that describe the arrangement of the vibrissae relative to other facial sensory structures. The few studies that do exist have exploited the whiskers' grid-like arrangement to quantify array morphology in terms of row and column identity. However, relying on whisker identity poses a challenge for comparative research because different species have different numbers and arrangements of whiskers. The present work introduces an approach to quantify vibrissal array morphology regardless of the number of rows and columns, and to quantify the array's location relative to other sensory structures. We use the three-dimensional locations of the whisker basepoints as fundamental parameters to generate equations describing the length, curvature, and orientation of each whisker. Results show that in the rat, whisker length varies exponentially across the array, and that a hard limit on intrinsic curvature constrains the whisker height-to-length ratio. Whiskers are oriented to "fan out" approximately equally in dorsal-ventral and rostralcaudal directions. Quantifying positions of the other sensory structures relative to the whisker basepoints shows remarkable alignment to the somatosensory cortical homunculus, an alignment that would not occur for other choices of coordinate systems (e.g., centered on the midpoint of the eyes). We anticipate that the quantification of facial sensory structures, including the vibrissae, will ultimately enable cross-species comparisons of multi-modal sensing volumes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0194981
JournalPloS one
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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