Aquatic environment and differentiation of vibrissae: comparison of sinus hair systems of ringed seal, otter and pole cat

Brain Behav Evol. 2009;74(4):268-79. doi: 10.1159/000264662. Epub 2009 Dec 8.


This study investigated the structure and innervation of the vibrissal systems of the pole cat (Mustela putorius), European otter (Lutra lutra) and ringed seal (Phoca hispida) in order to find adaptations to aquatic environment. The number of myelinated nerve fibers of deep vibrissal nerve (DVN) of the entire vibrissal system was considerably greater in the ringed seal (10x, aquatic mammal) and in the otter (4x, semi-aquatic mustelid) compared to the pole cat which is a terrestrial mustelid. Similarly, the number of neural end organs in the vibrissae of ringed seals was about ten times more numerous than in pole cats. The number of the vibrissae in the heads of otters was almost two times more than in pole cats, and all vibrissa groups had similar structures and innervation. The asymmetrically developed carpal vibrissae of otters were, however, more poorly innervated than the vibrissae of the head and had only smooth musculature. In the ringed seal the orientation of lanceolate end organs differed in different vibrissae, indicating the specialization of these vibrissae for different kinds of sensory functions. Ringed seal vibrissae contain structures which obviously are developed as adaptations to an aquatic environment. These include the modified mitochondria of Merkel cells, with Merkel cell-neurite complexes very often associated ciliated cells, liquid filled vesicles or intercellular spaces below the basal cell layer of the outer root sheath at the ring sinus level, a long upper cavernous sinus and a flattened beaded structure of the vibrissa hairs. As the vibrissae of aquatic mammals have analogous functions to the lateral line organ of fishes, we suggest using the term 'vibrissal sense' for the vibrissa system of aquatic mammals.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Count
  • Environment
  • Face / innervation
  • Face / physiology
  • Ferrets / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / physiology
  • Neurites / physiology
  • Otters / physiology*
  • Phoca / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / anatomy & histology
  • Vibrissae / innervation
  • Vibrissae / physiology*