During exploratory behaviors, the velocity of an organism's sensory surfaces can have a pronounced effect on the incoming flow of sensory information. In this study, we quantified variability in the velocity profiles of rat whisking during natural exploratory behavior that included head rotations. A wide continuum of profiles was observed, including monotonic, delayed, and reversing velocities during protractions and retractions. Three alternative hypotheses for the function of the variable velocity profiles were tested: 1) that they produce bilateral asymmetry specifically correlated with rotational head velocity, 2) that they serve to generate bilaterally asymmetric and/or asynchronous whisker movements independent of head velocity, and 3) that the different profiles - despite increasing variability in instantaneous velocity - reduce variability in the average whisking velocity. Our results favor the third hypothesis and do not support the first two. Specifically, the velocity variability within a whisk can be observed as a shift in the phase of the maximum velocity. We discuss the implications of these results for the control of whisker motion, horizontal object localization, and processing in the thalamus and cortex of the rat vibrissal system.
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