Tactile size discrimination by a California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) using its mystacial vibrissae

J Comp Physiol A. 1994 Dec;175(6):791-800. doi: 10.1007/BF00191851.


The capability of a blindfolded California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) to discriminate diameter differences of circular discs by means of active touch with its mystacial vibrissae was studied. Using a forced choice paradigm the sea lion was required to choose the larger of two simultaneously presented perspex discs. Absolute difference thresholds (delta D) were determined for 3 standard discs (1.12 cm phi, 2.52 cm phi, 8.74 cm phi) by the psychophysical method of constants. Increasing disc size resulted in an increase in the absolute difference threshold from 0.33 cm for the smallest disc size to 1.55 cm for the largest disc size. The relative difference threshold (Weber fraction) remained approximately constant at a mean value of 0.26. According to a video analysis the sea lion did not move its vibrissae when touching the discs. Instead, it performed precisely controlled lateral head movements, with the touched disc located centrally between the vibrissae of both sides of the muzzle. Since the extent of these head movements was identical at discs to be compared, discs of different size must have led to different degrees of deflection of vibrissae involved in the tactile process, resulting in quantitatively different mechanical stimulations of mechanoreceptors in the follicles. This suggests that the accuracy of the sea lion's size discrimination was determined by the efficiency of two sensory systems: the mechanosensitivity of follicle receptors as well as kinaesthesis.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Reaction Time
  • Sea Lions / physiology*
  • Sensory Thresholds
  • Touch / physiology*
  • Vibrissae / physiology*