Radial distance determination in the rat vibrissal system and the effects of Weber's law

Joseph H. Solomon, Mitra J Z Hartmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Rats rhythmically tap and brush their vibrissae (whiskers) against objects to tactually explore the environment. To extract a complex feature such as the contour of an object, the rat must at least implicitly estimate radial object distance, that is, the distance from the base of the vibrissa to the point of object contact. Radial object distance cannot be directly measured, however, because there are no mechanoreceptors along the vibrissa. Instead, the mechanical signals generated by the vibrissa's interaction with the environment must be transmitted to mechanoreceptors near the vibrissa base. The first part of this paper surveys the different mechanical methods by which the rat could determine radial object distance. Two novel methods are highlighted: one based on measurement of bending moment and axial force at the vibrissa base, and a second based on measurement of how far the vibrissa rotates beyond initial contact. The second part of the paper discusses the application of Weber's law to two methods for radial distance determination. In both cases, Weber's law predicts that the rat will have greatest sensing resolution close to the vibrissa tip. These predictions could be tested with behavioural experiments that measure the perceptual acuity of the rat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3049-3057
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1581
StatePublished - Nov 12 2011


  • Active sensing
  • Shape
  • Tactile
  • Touch
  • Trigeminal
  • Vibrissa

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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