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A night in the life of a rat: vibrissal mechanics and tactile exploration


Address for correspondence: Mitra J. Hartmann, Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, Northwestern University, 2145 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 602028.


The rat vibrissal (whisker) system is an increasingly important model for the study of the sense of touch. This paper describes recent results obtained from high-speed videography of rat exploratory behavior and from modeling studies of vibrissal biomechanics. We review several features of vibrissal touch, including the mechanics of contact versus noncontact whisking, the coordination between head and whisker movements, and the use of information obtained from the whiskers to detect, localize, and extract the spatial properties of objects. This work highlights the idea that mechanics are critical to an understanding of sensory systems and describes some new tools to monitor the spatiotemporal patterns of whisker–object contact during natural tactile exploratory behavior.

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