Seeing With Whiskers

Seeing with Whiskers
Have you ever wondered how cats can navigate in a dark room? Dr. Hendrick Van der Loos is an expert on the role of whiskers in animals. His research team at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland has shown an amazing demonstration of what cats can do by seeing with whiskers.

They blindfold cats and put them in a room with toys and other obstacles scattered around. The cats could navigate the room as well as cats with full sight because of their whiskers. The ancient Egyptians believed that cats had mysterious powers because they observed cats hunting mice in complete darkness.

We now know that not only cats but also walruses, pigs, seals, moles, and even whip-poor-wills have whiskers designed to meet their specific needs. The secret in all of these animals is that they possess specialized touch-sensitive hairs called vibrissae which are embedded deeply in the skin and resting in tiny sacs of fluid which pivot like a straw in a bottle of soda-pop. Brushing a whisker generates an electric signal in the fluid which is surrounded by nerves. The nerves feed the signal to the brain. This system is so sensitive that animals can detect the change of air currents around an object. They are seeing with whiskers which serve essentially as a tactile third eye.

A blindfolded cat can catch and kill a mouse. High-speed photography shows that a cat on the prowl for a mouse holds its whiskers in a fan-shaped pattern. Just before pouncing, the cat shifts its whiskers forward around its mouth. When the cat makes contact with the mouse, the whiskers tell the cat which way the mouse is dodging. As the whiskers wrap around the mouse, the cat can detect ahead of time which direction the mouse is trying to go.

A walrus will cruise around the floor of the ocean with its rump up and its head down stirring up the sea floor, so sight is useless. The walrus roots through the clouded water sorting out anything that might be good to eat by seeing with whiskers. Since walruses feed at night, there is the added benefit of being able to eat 24 hours a day. Moles have whiskers around their feet and tails which can detect insects in total darkness underground. Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, and nightjars have whiskers near their beaks and are active after dark.

Human whiskers are just hair, and they serve only decorative purposes. True whiskers were designed by God to provide special tools for animals to survive. They allow the normal processes of life to be carried on 24/7, and they speak eloquently of God’s wisdom and design in the world all around us.
–John N. Clayton © 2019