A study has found the way rats use their whiskers is more similar to how humans use their hands and fingers than previously thought.

Research from the University of Sheffield used high-speed videography to study animals that had been trained over several days to run circuits for food. 

Scientists put the rats in various scenarios, which included putting unexpected obstacles in their way and removing visual cues.

The team discovered strong evidence that the creatures moved their whiskers in a purposeful way to safely navigate the course. New research revealed that as animals got used to the environment, they moved quicker through the course and altered their whisker movements.

Scientists have long known that movement of the whiskers, known as “whisking”, provides these animals with a sense of touch and allows creatures to move around easily in the dark. However, until now, it was not know to what extent animals were able to deliberately control their whisker movement.

Tony Prescott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, said: “A person moving around in the dark would likely use their hand and fingers to detect objects and obstacles to avoid banging into things. In a familiar environment, such as their own home, they might move faster, pushing their hands out in front of them in case of unexpected collisions.

“This new research show rats do much the same thing, but using their facial whiskers. That is, they purposefully use their whiskers to detect nearby objects and surfaces when moving slowly in unfamiliar environments, and push them out in front of themselves to avoid collisions when the environment is familiar and they want to move more quickly.

“All mammals except humans use facial whiskers as touch sensors. In humans we seem to have replaced this sense, in part, by being able to use our hand and fingers to feel our way.

“The rat puts its whiskers where it thinks it will get the most useful information, just as we do with our fingertips.”

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