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Vibrissae (whiskers) are important components of the mammalian tactile sensory system, and primarily function as detectors of vibrotactile information from the environment. Pinnipeds possess the largest vibrissae among mammals and their vibrissal hair shafts demonstrate a diversity of shapes. The vibrissae of most phocid seals exhibit a beaded morphology with repeating sequences of crests and troughs along their length. However, there are few detailed analyses of pinniped vibrissal morphology, and these are limited to a few species. Therefore, we comparatively characterized differences in vibrissal hair shaft morphologies among phocid species with a beaded profile, phocid species with a smooth profile, and otariids with a smooth profile using traditional and geometric morphometric methods. Traditional morphometric measurements (peak-to-peak distance, crest width, trough width and total length) were collected using digital photographs. Elliptic Fourier analysis (geometric morphometrics) was used to quantify the outlines of whole vibrissae. The traditional and geometric morphometric datasets were subsequently combined by mathematically scaling each to true rank, followed by a single eigendecomposition. Quadratic discriminant function analysis demonstrated that 79.3, 97.8 and 100% of individuals could be correctly classified to their species based on vibrissal shape variables in the traditional, geometric and combined morphometric analyses, respectively. Phocids with beaded vibrissae, phocids with smooth vibrissae, and otariids each occupied distinct morphospace in the geometric morphometric and combined data analyses. Otariids split into two groups in the geometric morphometric analysis and gray seals appeared intermediate between beaded-and smooth-whiskered species in the traditional and combined analyses. Vibrissal hair shafts modulate the transduction of environmental stimuli to the mechanoreceptors in the follicle-sinus complex (F-SC), which results in vibrotactile reception, but it is currently unclear how the diversity of shapes affects environmental signal modulation.

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PloS One




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