How do seals use their whiskers?

Naturalist and BBC Wildlife contributor Jon Dunn explains the remarkable ways these marine mammals use their whiskers.

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Bearded seal on an iceberf in Svalbard, Norway

Bearded seal on an iceberg in Svalbard, Norway © Fabrice Guerin / Getty

 

When you first look at a seal, their whiskers aren’t usually the most striking feature – that would be their magnificent, streamlined, blubber-clad bodies. But pinniped whiskers deserve a second glance.

Different species utilise these bristly appendages in different ways. Bearded seals (above), for instance, who are named after their luxuriant facial furniture, use theirs to help them locate prey hiding in the soft sediment on the sea bed in the shallow waters in which they feed. Visibility may be low, but their whiskers can sense what they’re looking for.

Common seals use theirs to augment or even replace their vision when hunting fish in open water. They’ve even been known to follow the exact path of other seals that have swum by minutes before them, using their whiskers to detect the faint trail of disturbance left behind in the water.

Seals can achieve these remarkable feats because their whiskers are each served by roughly 10 times as many nerves as those of terrestrial mammals. Even in pitch darkness at the bottom of the sea, they channel a wealth of  useful information. 

 

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