Variations in vibrissal geometry across the rat mystacial pad: base diameter, medulla, and taper

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Apr 1;117(4):1807-1820. doi: 10.1152/jn.00054.2016. Epub 2016 Nov 23.


Many rodents tactually sense the world through active motions of their vibrissae (whiskers), which are regularly arranged in rows and columns (arcs) on the face. The present study quantifies several geometric parameters of rat whiskers that determine the tactile information acquired. Findings include the following. 1) A meta-analysis of seven studies shows that whisker base diameter varies with arc length with a surprisingly strong dependence on the whisker's row position within the array. 2) The length of the whisker medulla varies linearly with whisker length, and the medulla's base diameter varies linearly with whisker base diameter. 3) Two parameters are required to characterize whisker "taper": radius ratio (base radius divided by tip radius) and radius slope (the difference between base and tip radius, divided by arc length). A meta-analysis of five studies shows that radius ratio exhibits large variability due to variations in tip radius, while radius slope varies systematically across the array. 4) Within the resolution of the present study, radius slope does not differ between the proximal and distal segments of the whisker, where "proximal" is defined by the presence of the medulla. 5) Radius slope of the medulla is offset by a constant value from radius slope of the proximal portion of the whisker. We conclude with equations for all geometric parameters as functions of row and column position.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Rats tactually explore their world by brushing and tapping their whiskers against objects. Each whisker's geometry will have a large influence on its mechanics and thus on the tactile signals the rat obtains. We performed a meta-analysis of seven studies to generate equations that describe systematic variations in whisker geometry across the rat's face. We also quantified the geometry of the whisker medulla. A database provides access to geometric parameters of over 500 rat whiskers.

Keywords: active sensing; behavior; touch; trigeminal; whisker.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Datasets as Topic / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Linear Models
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / innervation*