Seals’ whiskers caught the attention of MIT researchers as the marine animals are astonishingly good hunters and navigators, acting with the precision of a laser.
It is no secret to marine biologists observing seals in their natural habitat that these animals have a knack for detecting prey, even when it passed them by for some time. How do seals track moving objects around them? This aspect hasn’t been analyzed until recently, although it was believed that the seals’ whiskers hold the key. As such, the seals’ whiskers caught the attention of MIT researchers looking to understand what role they play in extraordinary capacity of seals to hunt and navigate so accurately.
To understand the process, the MIT engineers produced and set out to test a large-scale model of a seal’s whisker. The results speak for themselves. It is indeed the seals’ whiskers that allow them to track prey and accurately sense the environment.
Firstly, the whiskers play a role in keeping the seal connected to the environment by helping them sense their own movement and differentiating it from other objects moving around. Secondly, the whiskers play a role in detecting any turbulence created by a moving object.
The artificially created whisker was instrumental in understanding the laser-precision observed with seals when tracking prey and detecting movements. As an object floated by, the whisker’s vibration is synchronized with the vibration frequency of the vortices left by the passing object. The whisker then performs something similar to slaloming through these vortices. This process allows the seal to form a better image of the path that the object took, the size of the object and its shape.
The research was conducted by Professor Michael Triantafyllou and Ph.D. Heather Beem. Their study is published in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics. The research isn’t just about understanding how whiskers help seals navigate. It is also about how the findings could be applied to advance technological discoveries.
For instance, sensors inspired by the seals’ whiskers could help submerging vehicles in tracking fish for research purposes. At the same time, the biologically inspired sensors would be a useful instrument in tracking pollution sources.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia