Cottage Q&A: Why do mammals have whiskers?

A close-up shot of a rat's face, covered in whiskers By COULANGES/Shutterstock

Why do mammals have whiskers?—Faced with Facts

Mammals use their whiskers—also called vibrissae or tactile hairs—to gather information about their environments. “They play a primary role as sensory tools,” says Kamal Khidas, the curator of vertebrate zoology collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Whiskers are longer and thicker than regular hair and are used largely for food finding and navigation, but they also appear to have a role—at least for some species—in communication, pheromone dispersion, and attack behaviour.

Nearly all mammals have whiskers at some stage of their lives. For the most part, they’re located on the face: around the nostrils, above the ears and eyes, and on the chin. Their number, size, location, and arrangement pattern varies.

“It depends on what an animal’s sensory world is like,” says Fiona Reid, the author of the Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America. Arboreal mammals tend to have long, dense whiskers; marine mammals have stiffer whiskers, for detecting water currents. Bats have sensory hairs on their hindquarters and feet because they often back into small crevices, says Reid. Rats, who also spend a lot of time in tight, dark spaces, are almost constantly sweeping their facial whiskers back and forth against objects to determine size, shape, and orientation. It’s called “whisking.”

Unless you count hipsters and Abraham Lincoln, humans don’t have whiskers. We likely lost them during evolution.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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