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Keywords:

  • whiskers;
  • tactile sensory systems;
  • foraging;
  • pinnipeds;
  • aquatic mammals

Abstract

Vibrissal follicle-sinus complexes (F-SCs) are sensory receptors of the mammalian integument system. They are best developed within Pinnipedia. The objective of this study was to investigate the F-SCs of bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) for benthic foraging adaptations. Bearded seals possessed approximately 244 mystacial F-SCs. In this species, F-SCs consisted of an outer dermal capsule (DC) surrounding a blood sinus system [upper cavernous sinus (UCS), ring sinus (RS), and lower cavernous sinus (LCS)] and concentric rings of epidermal tissue. The UCS comprised up to 62% of the F-SC length and may function as thermal protection for mechanoreceptors. A large asymmetrical ringwulst was located in the RS. A deep vibrissal nerve penetrated the DC at its base and terminated on mechanoreceptors in the epidermal tissues of the LCS and RS. The mean number of myelinated axons per F-SC was 1,314 (range, 811–1,650) and was among the highest number of axons per F-SC reported to date. An estimated mean number of 320,616 myelinated axons innervate the entire mystacial vibrissal array. Merkel-Neurite complexes (MNCs) and small simple laminated corpuscles were found in the region of the LCS. Myelinated axons also terminated on MNCs and lanceolate endings apical to the ringwulst. The number of F-SCs, their geometry in the mystacial region, the number of myelinated axons per F-SC, and the distribution of mechanoreceptors support the premise that pinniped vibrissae are sensitive active-touch receptor systems, and that structural differences in bearded seals, relative to other phocids, may be adaptations for benthic foraging. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.