Beneath the waters where they can barely see, a seal’s whiskers are its best tools for tracking prey through an intricate system that is much more complex than it looks.
- Researchers from MIT created a 3D printed large version of harbor seals’ whiskers
- The whiskers move to the frequency left behind in the wake of their prey
- This hyper-sensibility allows them to track fish even when they cannot see
- Researchers hope this could provide inspiration for future technologies of underwater vehicles
Whiskers are generally highly important parts of various animals. They aid in detecting movements, maintaining balance, and even kinetic uses, as they do in mice. This particular part, however, is even more important in some species of seals. In fact, they’re vital to their ability of hunting down their dinner.
The antennae-like whiskers of harbor seals have an incredibly subtle ability that turns the mammals into excellent hunters. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a 3D-printed large-scale version of the vital component in order to understand how it works.
And, apparently, a harbor seal’s whiskers move efficiently and perfectly to the wake motion left behind by passing prey.
When a fish or prey swims nearby, it disturbs the water. The harbor seal’s whiskers are capable of detecting those subtle movements, oscillating in a ‘slaloming’ or zigzagging fashion. Essentially, they extract energy from the wake to incredible detail.
The movement of their own whiskers helps the seals to determine the shape, size and path of its prey. Their striking precision is rooted into the fact that their whiskers move to the turbulence left behind by their prey, but also remain steady to the seal’s actual movement. They hold a dampening effect, which drowns out its own motion in order to focus on its target.
This successfully helps the mammals in flawlessly detecting the path of fish.
The whiskers vibrate to the same frequency as the patterns left behind, slaloming between them. This allows the harbor seals to move silently through the waters, and track down their prey. It’s an incredibly efficient system that is comparable to the echolocation of whales of dolphins.
The outstanding over-sensibility of a seal’s whiskers is due to their sophisticated shape. They might appear slightly curled to the naked eye, but research under the microscope revealed intricate wavy forms with elliptical cross-sections. According to lead author of the study, Michael Triantafyllou, it’s “a perfect sinusoid”, and this remarkable shape results in their heightened tracking skills.
The findings offer a proper insight into their ability to find food when they can’t really see. And, if that’s not interesting enough, Triantafyllou has claimed that it could aid in better development of future underwater vehicles.
By having engineered whiskers, they could provide with low-power sensors which will allow to either track marine animals, or dangerous sources of pollution in the waters. Animals, once again, provide excellent inspiration for future technologies.
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