Animals in their natural environments actively process spatiotemporally complex sensory signals in order to guide adaptive behavior. It therefore seems likely that the properties of both single neurons and neural ensembles should reflect the dynamic nature of such interactions. During exploratory behaviors, rats move their whiskers to actively discriminate between different tactile features. We investigated whether this dynamic sensory processing was reflected in the spatial and temporal properties of neurons in layer V of the 'whisker area' in the rat primary somatosensory cortex. We found that the majority of layer V neurons had large (8.5+/-4.9 whiskers) spatiotemporal receptive fields (i.e. individual cells responded best to different whiskers as a function of post-stimulus time), and that the excitatory responses of surround whiskers formed a spatial gradient of excitation that seemed to reflect the greater use of the ventral and caudal whiskers during natural behaviors. Analyses of ensembles of layer V neurons revealed that single-whisker stimuli activated a portion of layer V that extends well beyond a single cortical column (average of 5.6 barrel cortical columns). Based on these results, we conclude that the rat primary somatosensory cortex does not appear to operate as a static decoder of tactile information. On the contrary, our data suggest that tactile processing in rats is likely to involve the on-going interactions between populations of broadly tuned neurons in the thalamocortical pathway.